For any nonprofit organization, the desire to make a social impact is baked into the mission. Senior living providers, however, can have their impact multiplied many times over by an additional army of built-in volunteers: residents.
Encouraging volunteerism by its residents to serve the outside community, Friendship Village of Schaumburg in Illinois created a program to help identify local organizations serving individuals and families in need. This group of resident volunteers act as teachers, ambassadors and counselors spreading their friendship and skills to create a social impact.
The volunteer group, The Senior Outreach Coalition, has to date provided more than 10,000 hours of community service by 500 residents. As an organization in need becomes known, the group recruits, trains and works closely with the community partner. Examples of the influence the volunteers in the Senior Outreach Coalition have experienced are many.
Role of Staff in Supporting Resident Volunteerism
The Senior Outreach Coalition’s staff liaison is the volunteer manager who organizes and manages the Coalition’s efforts and provides additional staff support where needed to make the event successful. Once a volunteer opportunity is identified, usually by the residents, the volunteer manager contacts the outside agency to arrange a time and date for the event and find out what is needed. Information about the event is then sent out to the other residents through flyers and posters. If needed, transportation is arranged and staff is recruited to assist at the event.
What are the staff requirements? Consider the example of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service program: The Senior Outreach Coalition suggested that instead of lectures or entertainment to celebrate this special day, a day of service to serve other seniors be organized. In a case like this, the volunteer manager contacts local agencies that support seniors and facilitates the making of the peanut butter and jelly sack lunches. Residents make the lunches and staff from dining services provides the food as needed (probably an hour of time by one staff person). Other staff members help box the lunches or assist residents in writing notes of encouragement (perhaps an hour of time each by 4 to 5 staff). The community bus drivers deliver the lunches to the local senior communities (about 30 minutes for one staff member). Staff time does need to be considered, but it’s a minimal amount and makes a real social impact.
Serving All Ages
Residents have assisted the Children’s Home and Aid Society by caring for infants and toddlers from high-risk families. They rock, feed and play with these children, using the parenting skills they learned long ago. The children learn to relate to seniors who are often absent from their lives. This group also leads an annual school and personal items drive over the holidays, which collects over 500 items for at-risk families. At the conclusion of the drive, the residents from the choir sing fun songs and carols with the children. It was heartwarming when one of the children questioned, “Can we give them a hug?” pointing at our residents. Our human resources department also got involved by conducting interview, resume and job skills classes for mothers to help them improve their economic status for themselves and their children.
Once a week for a period of several months, a group of Friendship Village seniors went to a local junior high to spend time with at-risk students who had trouble fitting in at school. They would meet after school and just talk, play cards or work on art projects. The students enjoyed spending time with people who did not judge them, and had an opportunity to learn how to form better relationships.
Women residents who had had careers outside of the home were invited to speak to a women’s studies class at a local high school. They explained to the girls about how years ago, women were not allowed to work while pregnant or to hold a job that involved traveling, along with many other difficult situations not faced by women in the workforce today. They also spoke of how they persevered in these difficult situations to “break the glass ceiling” and how the girls should work to achieve their goals.
A local grade school, upon a receiving grant for constructing a greenhouse and garden, expanded an existing partnership by inviting residents to help with the planning and planting for this project. This intergenerational program provides mentoring and educational opportunities for residents and students. It was so successful that Friendship Village received a “Super Partner” award from the community and also the LeadingAge Illinois 2011 Community Impact Award for Excellence.
Every week, for the past several years, a group of women volunteer their time at WINGS, a local charity resale store. The proceeds help homeless and abused women and children by offering integrated services that meet their needs for shelter, education, guidance and support. The store provides 30% of the funding for this program. The volunteers clean, sort, fold and display the items donated. Building on this relationship, residents also held a winter hat and mitten drive for the mothers and their children who seek refuge from abuse in their “safe house.”
Friendship Village residents volunteer to assist young adults with disabilities work on projects to benefit others, such as making simple fleece blankets or cards for soldiers. By changing the resident volunteer paradigm, residents changed the paradigm for disabled adults. The residents used their skills and experiences to help those with disabilities to acquire a greater sense of independence, feel more socially connected, and serve their community. It is the belief of the project that the opportunity for older adults to mentor, support and engage persons with disabilities through the volunteer experience will result in an enhanced quality of life for this population.
Twice a year for the past several years, residents and associates volunteer to pack nutritious packets of chicken, vegetables, soy and rice at Feed My Starving Children, a nonprofit Christian organization committed to feeding children who suffer from debilitating lifelong diseases or face death from malnutrition. The volunteers hand-pack nutritional meals specifically formulated for malnourished children. The packages are shipped to nearly 70 countries around the world. Residents who are unable to stand to pack the meals volunteer to sit and affix stickers on the bags used to pack the food. Everyone pitches in.
An organization in inner-city Chicago partnered with the Senior Outreach Coalition to learn how to fish on the campus pond. Children who have never held a fishing pole were taught by the residents how to bait, hook, catch and release and other fishing skills. When a resident unhooked the fish and handed it to one of the children to throw it back in the pond, the look on the child’s face was priceless. He had never held a fish before.
There are two other partnerships with the outside community that bring young adults into Friendship Village to help prepare them for jobs. One provides a place for developmentally disabled young adults to prepare for future jobs by volunteering in the skilled nursing area. The other is an adult transition program through a local high school: Young adults with disabilities volunteer in our skilled nursing community to gain job skills. All of these young adults take the volunteering very seriously and come dressed business-casual for work, and never miss an assigned day. Even though we are providing an opportunity for them to volunteer, we believe they also gain knowledge from our residents who they are serving along with their job skills.
New Life for Old Bags is a volunteer program that was started and is led by just one resident but is impacting the lives of many other residents and people in the outside community. A group of volunteers sort, cut, and tie together strips of plastic shopping bags and crochet this plastic “trash” into beautiful sleeping mats for the homeless. Friendship Village has been featured twice on a local TV station for this project, most recently for a new partnership with a local college’s program for developmentally disabled young adults. They saw the first feature story and asked for help to start their own NLFOB program.
Twice a year, a group of volunteers, along with our head chef, prepare a complete brunch at The Ronald McDonald House, which offers housing, food and support to families of children who are hospitalized for serious illnesses. After cooking a delicious brunch, volunteers sit with the families and listen to their stories offering support over coffee.
To celebrate the Friendship Village Dr. Martin Luther King Day of Service, residents instituted “Seniors Helping Seniors,” a program that distributes lunches (peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, bottles of water, fruit and chips) to local senior centers. Residents and staff add notes of encouragement to be included in each sack lunch. Later that day, residents made fleece blankets for Second City Canine Rescue.
In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, what are you doing for others?” The Friendship Village residents participating in the Senior Outreach Coalition are setting a great example by doing for others.
Not only does volunteerism offer social impact, residents using their gifts and talents to make a difference gain health benefits. Helping others can reduce stress, combat depression, stimulate cognition and provide a sense of purpose. Seniors sometimes learn new skills and continue to remain active. They meet new people and build new relationships.
By organizing and administering the Senior Outreach Coalition, these residents are able to develop partnerships that benefit all individuals and organizations involved and help change lives through positive programming and involvement. By doing so, the residents reap the comprehensive benefits of volunteerism, living a productive and independent life.
Winston Churchill once said, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” By changing the paradigm of volunteerism within retirement communities, leaders in the aging services field can encourage retirement community residents to find purpose and “make a life” by giving back to others less fortunate and have a positive impact on society.
Jeannette Magdaleno is manager of lifelong learning for Friendship Village of Schaumburg, and Jill Steco is lifestyles director.