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Volunteers exhibit generosity as they assist home-bound seniors and disabled clients with chores

When a new volunteer who was doing light housework for a Volunteers Chore Services low-income senior asked for another client, Judy Marte, program manager, wondered if there was a problem with the person or the situation.

The problem was no problem.  The volunteer found that the work was much easier than she expected, so she was asking to be assigned to help an additional client.

Judy Marte
Judy Marte

This summer, another volunteer announced to Judy that he had just mowed his 3,000th lawn.

A young, working mother signed up recently, realizing she could do some housework to help someone else.

A new driver, who is in his late 60s, is able to drive even though he has been disabled since birth.

“The people who sign up to help are amazing,” Judy said.

Volunteer Chore Services (VCS), a program of Catholic Charities’ Senior Services, connects volunteers with low-income seniors and disabled adults, assisting them so they can continue to live independently in their own homes.

This program helps neighbors help neighbors by stepping in to assist with housework, yard work, rides to medical appointments or grocery shopping and other chores.

Judy became program manager six months ago.  She has been with the Senior Services program for two years.

After earning an undergraduate degree in natural resources conservation in 1978 at the University of Connecticut and a master’s degree in wildlife management in 1981 at Louisiana State University, she worked for a while with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries—work that included helping catch alligators.

“I thought I wanted to work outdoors with wildlife, but as I grew older, I realized I wanted to work with people,” she said.

She moved with her former husband to the Northwest—Idaho Falls, Missoula, Mont., and Genesee, Idaho.  Life changed when she had two small children and she chose to stay at home.  The moves and time she took out to rear her children made it hard for her to go back to work.

She moved to Spokane 11 years ago, working part time and volunteering at schools and children’s theatre.  She worked in retail, but eventually began looking for “a real job” that would mean something, a career where she could make a difference.

She credits growing up in a Methodist church as a child in White Plains, N.Y., with helping form her values and commitment to give back to the community.  She also credits the example of her mother, 80, and father, 78, who in retirement do volunteer chore work in Arizona.

“The goal of Volunteer Chore Services is to help low-income seniors and disabled people who do not have family living in the area to assist them,” Judy said.

“Volunteers become like substitute family, providing transportation to medical appointments or the grocery store, or helping in the home with light housework, yard work, minor home repairs or building a wheel chair ramp,” she said.  “We also help people move from one independent living facility to another independent living facility.”

She estimates volunteers provide 15 to 20 rides a day.

There is constant demand for housework such as vacuuming, cleaning the bathtub, mopping the floor or doing laundry.

Most volunteers help the same person twice a month.

From January to September 2007, a total of 1,025 volunteers helped more than 1,300 clients in Spokane County.  Through offices in Colville, Wilbur and Walla Walla, in addition to Spokane, they serve the 13 counties of Eastern Washington, reaching out through more than 1,600 volunteers to help more than 2,000 clients.

The volunteer numbers include individual, ongoing volunteers and members of groups who help at one or more events.

Volunteer Chore Services partners with En Christo, a group at Whitworth that sends students to spend three hours Saturdays visiting with residents of the Delaney apartments.  They help with housework, bring food or just spend time. 

VCS works with other church, school and business groups.

The greatest need is for more people to join the approximately 150 active, regular individual volunteers, especially to do light housework.

“We have people needing light housework on a waiting list,” said Judy, whose work involves finding creative ways to advertise for volunteers in fliers and media.

“Tasks that are easy for able-bodied people are difficult for disabled and elderly people,” she said.  “It’s often little things we take for granted.”

For example, one volunteer noticed that her client was frail and not eating.  She had frozen meals provided, but was unable to open them to eat the food.

Many volunteers quietly and consistently work, not wanting recognition.

One man drives hundreds of miles every month.  Volunteer Chore Services reimburses volunteers for their mileage.  He refused to be reimbursed, preferring to donate both his time and the cost of gas.

Another man drives residents of the O’Malley, Fahy and Cathedral Plaza housing complexes to the grocery store every week.  He often picks up a carload and, if more want to go, he comes back and makes another trip.

Once a month, in conjunction with Second Harvest of the Inland Northwest, Volunteer Chore drivers deliver food to home-bound people through the Brown Bag and the Commodities programs. 

About 20 volunteers deliver bags or boxes of food.  Some bags are delivered to houses and some to apartment buildings that house many home-bound people.  This helps people who do not have the transportation to go to a food bank.

More than 500 clients receive food through this program each month.

In the overall program, some volunteers offer a little help once a month, and some want to do something every day,” Judy said.

“Most volunteers just say they like to help people.  It makes them feel good,” she said.  “One young mother involves her children so they will learn to care.  One older volunteer says he volunteers to give back because he is thankful for his continuing years of health.”

Some Whitworth University, Gonzaga University and Community College students volunteer as part of service learning for a class or club, and others do it because they just want to help.

“Most volunteers believe they gain more than the clients do,” she said. 

“I see that both sides gain,” Judy pointed out.

“Many clients are lonely and isolated.  They just enjoy having someone come to their home to converse with them.  Whether volunteers drive or do light housework, there’s always plenty of talking going on.”

One client said it had been three weeks since she had talked to anyone.  She told the volunteer of her ex-husband and other concerns.  She apologized for talking so much.

“I encourage volunteers to talk and listen.  Many clients tell wonderful stories of their lives,” she said.

VCS staff members do home visits before sending a volunteer, in order to see the person’s situation. 

Volunteer Chore Services also offers training, does background checks, checks references, does an orientation and provides ongoing support.

“We want clients to know we are sending persons they can trust,” Judy said.

Sometimes Volunteer Chore sends a group to clean apartment units sponsored by Catholic Charities.  If a client’s yard is out of control, they may also send a group. 

During the winter, some volunteers shovel snow.  In the summer, volunteers mow lawns.  In the fall, they rake leaves.

Volunteer Chore Services started in 1981 with funding from the State of Washington, administered through Catholic Charities.

For information, call 328-8400.