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Mental Health America: “There Will Always Be Helpers”

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When Fred Rogers was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1999, he shared some advice his mother gave him: “Always look for the helpers. There will always be helpers.” He added, “If you look for the helpers, you’ll know that there’s hope.”

The demands of the past months have tried us all. We are dealing with fears of illness, fears for our children, and unending adjustments to our schedules. We are dealing with the stress and limitations that come from reducing our social interactions. Sadly, the senior population has suffered more than most. They are often bearing the brunt of the pandemic in terms of isolation because of health concerns. One local support system, the Senior Visitors Program of Mental Health America Fredericksburg, Virginia (MHAF) responded to the challenges and demands leveled on their senior clients by the pandemic with determination to continue in their mission to provide companionship to the 115 enrolled members. They are the helpers Mrs. Rogers spoke of to her son—those providing hope.

“Working with seniors at this time is especially challenging. Both the COVID virus and the isolation necessary to protect seniors from getting COVID can have devastating effects. The Senior Visitors Program had to make the difficult decision to suspend in-person, in-home visits. However, it is no surprise that our dedicated volunteers still find ways to stay connected and bring cheer to the seniors they visit,” says Laurie Black, acting program coordinator of the Senior Visitors Program at MHAF.

Steve, one local volunteer, got very serious about his behaviors so he could ensure he protected his friend, Chuck, 78 who lives in Fredericksburg. Steve runs errands for Chuck, who has a hard time getting around because of the pandemic and his mobility limitations.

“Our going out together opportunities diminished, but I didn’t think about stopping. We just learned to adjust our interactions,” he says. Steve switched their connections from the normal weekly calls and outings to routine front porch visits and even more frequent phone calls. Like many of the program’s volunteers, Steve continued their relationship while promoting the healthiest of outcomes for his friend of 14 years.

And how’s the resulting experience, even with the adjustments?

“I feel gifted by his efforts. He makes me feel safe and has reduced the loneliness of it all,” says Chuck. “Steve helps me set boundaries to wake me up to the dangers of this crisis. We have a trust born from a strong bond of many years. The relationship allows me to give a voice to the stress of it all and gets me out of my own head.”

As Black talks about the program’s volunteers and their response to the challenges of 2020, you can hear her pride and joy in the way the program has shifted since late March. The resilience and grit of those involved to move forward with their mission to support their vulnerable friends have created a lifeline for many in our community.

“One volunteer began writing a weekly newsletter which included photos of projects around his home. He delivered the newsletter to his senior’s porch,” she says. “They’d call and talk about the work being done and their senior friend offered their inputs as to the projects and ways to work the effort.”

Another volunteer helped celebrate her senior’s birthday by leaving flowers on her doorstep and singing happy birthday to her from the sidewalk. Who doesn’t enjoy being serenaded on their birthday? 

There are phone calls, Zoom calls, window visits, socially distanced visits on the porch, etc. At times, the technologies other generations take for granted are brand new to seniors. Things like virtual chat rooms and Facetime calls may not be on their scope before their volunteers tutor them through the process. One volunteer and her senior choose a movie to watch “together” each week and use the phone to talk about the movie.

When phone calls are not practical because of hearing issues, volunteers stay in contact through extended family members, using notes and cards, and drop-offs of goodies and correspondence at client’s homes. Many volunteers drive by their senior friend’s houses at prearranged times to each other from their windows. Any connection is important and reminds their clients they are not alone.

MHAF is always looking for more “helpers” to support the spirit and health of our local senior population. Without question, our seniors are benefitting from the ingenuity, strength and dedication of area volunteers. Our volunteers give their clients hope. In times like these, our community bonding together and giving each other hope is exactly what we need in the New Year.

To find out how to volunteer with the Senior Visitor’s Program or how to send a smile greeting yard sign to anyone you’d like to lift during the new year, visit the MHAF website at mhafred.org, or call the office at (540) 371-2704. 

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