[The program] originated with the Topeka Police Department,” said Marilyn Thomas, Friendly Visitors program coordinator. “When they received a call about a concern for a senior, they would send officers out to the senior’s home for a wellness check.
“Since then, the program has grown. Its mission is to reduce the isolation and provide socialization for those most vulnerable brothers and sisters — seniors — still living in their homes. We still work with the Topeka Police Department after exhausting all other contacts in locating a client we feel may be at home needing assistance.”
The services provided by the program offer help seniors could not find elsewhere, making it possible for them to continue to live on their own. Friendly Callers are assigned seniors (55 and older) to call at an agreed upon time weekly, while Ring-a-Day volunteers call on the homebound elderly between the hours of 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. five to seven days a week.
“Ring-a-Day calls often serve as a medication reminder and safety check,” said Thomas, adding that “all telephone visiting helps to combat the loneliness often felt by homebound seniors and may spur a lasting relationship.”
The volunteers who take part in the home visiting component make visits to the participant’s home two to four times a month to read mail, discuss current events, play games or just chat on a variety of topics.
One recipient of home visiting services is 91-year-old Anita Dodge, who lives in a senior citizen complex in east Topeka.
“Ann [Newell] has been coming since June of 2013,” said Dodge, who has limited vision. “We’re a perfect match. She helps with reading mainly, and filling out forms.”
Although Dodge lives in an area “where we look out for one another,” she said there is a real need for the Friendly Visitors.
“People need a personal contact with someone,” Dodge said. “[Ann] doesn’t take me anywhere, but she’s still a personal contact — we have good conversation and the best time after business is out of the way. We find we have a lot in common. I’m homebound, so I don’t get out to see what’s going on. This is excellent for homebound people; I’d recommend it for men, too.”
Dodge says her volunteer comes twice a month for 90 minutes at a time, although “she’s offered to come more often. I look forward to her visits — it’s the highlight of my day. She’s such a nice friend; she comes in the morning and makes the day nice. It really perks me up.”
Circle of giving
Dodge is a former Friendly Visitor volunteer herself, although she wasn’t able to participate as much as she would have liked.
“At the time, I had a husband and two children, so I could only do it during [the] hours when the kids were in school,” she explained. Having been a volunteer as well as a recipient, Dodge knows of the need for the provided services.
“This service is a blessing and a necessity,” she said.
Mildred Boster of Berryton is another former volunteer who now receives Friendly Visitor services.
“Shirley calls every morning,” Boster said of the Ring-a-Day call she receives from Shirley Fudge. “I like Shirley — sometimes we talk quite a bit; sometimes she catches me coming out of the shower and we keep it short.”
Noting that she used to call three people a day herself, Boster says she wouldn’t mind calling people again.
“I think the program is a good thing,” she said. “If you’re not feeling well or not getting out, having someone call and check on you is wonderful.”
Although Boster does have a daughter who lives in the area, she believes the Friendly Visitor program allows her to be more independent.
Perhaps one of the most popular services of the Friendly Visitor program is the escorting or transportation component.
“Our volunteers use their own vehicles, gasoline and time to assist an elderly person to medical appointments, the grocery store and other places,” said Thomas. “This is totally volunteer-driven and no one is paid for the services they provide.
“Volunteers escort our senior brothers and sisters to and from their appointments. They wait at their appointments, and some have been so helpful in assisting our participants with getting follow-up appointment dates, so we can get them scheduled and assigned.”
“Without these dedicated volunteer drivers,” added Thomas, “the transportation component would not exist as it is.”
Thomas notes that while no one is paid for their services, donations are always appreciated.
Although there is a car sitting in her driveway in Topeka’s Jefferson Square neighborhood, 87-year-old Barbara Clark has made use of the transportation service since losing her license several years ago.
“The doctor stopped me from driving,” said Clark. “I took a driver’s test through her office, and she sent a report to the motor vehicle office. I called the Shawnee County Health Department and they sent Marilyn Thomas. I didn’t know about Catholic Charities until then, but this service really fits my needs.”
Clark says that although it’s a blessing to live to her age and members from her Baptist church pick her up for church on Sunday and other church functions, she has depended on Catholic Charities for transportation to and from doctors’ appointments for several years.
“It’s certainly been a real blessing to me,” said Clark, adding that she did take cabs to appointments before finding Catholic Charities, but the trip would cost at least $20 and the drivers wouldn’t wait, which meant she’d have to call another cab to take her home.
“I like the fact that this is safe and convenient,” Clark said. “The drivers wait until I finish my appointment, and they are always on time. They call ahead the night before to double-check the time. I can’t praise it enough. It’s been a real godsend; it really has.”
Giving back pays off
Tom Muth, a volunteer driver for the program, says the one topic that most clients talk about is no longer being able to drive and how much they appreciate the volunteer driving service.
“Volunteering for Friendly Visitors is very rewarding, satisfying and colorful — a slice of life, so to speak,” he said. “Some clients will share concerns about the family, health and other issues; some do not care to do so. All information, of course, is confidential.”
Muth first heard of the Friendly Visitors program in the latter part of 2001 when information was provided by a Holy Name Church parishioner regarding the opportunity to volunteer for the group.
“Donating a few hours a week seemed appealing to me. I interviewed in December of 2001 and began driving in February of 2002,” he said.
“The chance to meet people and assist them at the same time has been rewarding,” he said. “There doesn’t seem to be an ‘average’ client — each has a history and needs.
“Some share more than others, but all have appreciated the service.”
One of those who appreciates the service and who has often been driven by Muth is Charles “Chuck” Rothe.
“I consider Tom a friend,” said Rothe. “He’s always accommodating, always friendly, always polite. My use varies, but I always use the same driver. I’ve been with him so long he knows my idiosyncrasies, and I get along with him well.”
Rothe says he would most definitely recommend the service to others who no longer drive, even though he knows more drivers are needed.
Just a phone call away
Sometimes the transportation service has been more than just appreciated — sometimes it has meant the difference between life and death.
“I had just met Tom,” said Passeggiata, who also uses the transportation component of Friendly Visitors in addition to Ring-a-Day services, “and I didn’t feel well. None of my neighbors were home, so I called Tom. I was having pains in my chest. Even though it was 2:30 in the morning, he called an ambulance and came over. When I got to the emergency room, they told me I was having a heart attack. If not for Tom, I wouldn’t be here.”
McClacherty has also saved “a couple of people’s lives. One fell when she got tangled in her walker; another had a heart attack. At that time, we didn’t get the addresses of people we called but did have an emergency contact person.”
Despite the accolades for the Friendly Visitors Program, Thomas says more volunteers are needed.
“We serve over 100 participants in Shawnee County, and we have 30 volunteers,” she says. “Catholic Charities serves people of all faiths in our 21 counties, no matter what program they are in. The Friendly Visitors program from this location also serves Jefferson, Osage, Jackson and Lyon counties. Other Catholic Charities locations have counties they serve with their Friendly Visitors program.”
All volunteers, said Thomas, undergo a Kansas Bureau of Investigation background check before starting service, with those providing transportation receiving a Kansas driver’s license check as well.
“As the coordinator, I recruit, train and match volunteers to participants,” she explained, adding that even though “we have hundreds of cumulative hours for callers, visitors and drivers for the Friendly Visitor program, I would like to see at least ten additional volunteers for our programs. We especially need male volunteers to make social visits to our male participants.”
Volunteers like Muth find the time they spend to be rewarding to them personally.
“Listening to stories from the clients has been intriguing and uplifting, providing lessons in compassion and understanding,” he said.
“It is impossible to assist clients with diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s and not be humbled and appreciative for what God has provided,” Muth added.
“This service is a blessing,” Dodge reiterates. “When you have a Friendly Visitor, you have a new friend.”
“Whoever came up with this program should be blessed by God,” said Passeggiata. “They will get their reward in heaven.”