While many volunteer opportunities target young people to build experience and knowledge for their lives and careers, United Way of Porter County knew the spirit of service and volunteerism does not solely live in the hearts of young people. The Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP), which offers seniors 55 years and older the chance to serve those in need, is now the largest volunteer network for retired people and seniors in the country, creating lasting connections with those they serve.
A federally funded program, RSVP emphasizes one primary focus, Aging in Place. Many seniors or people who are house-bound in the community and around the country struggle with loneliness and meeting their basic needs due to the inability to leave the house, lack of access, medical limits, and more. RSVP fills in those needs, allowing people to continue to live in their homes and be more independent.
“We provide transportation support, food support like food pantries and Meals on Wheels, and companionship,” said Evelyn Harris, RSVP’s Regional Director. “Those are the pillars of our program, meeting our mission of helping seniors to continue to live in their homes and be independent while giving them assistance from RSVP.”
Volunteers who provide transportation support take clients to doctor’s appointments, the grocery stores, the pharmacy, or anywhere they may need to go but may not have the resources to otherwise. Food support includes partnering with programs like Meals on Wheels to deliver fresh, hot meals to clients or local food pantries to distribute food at the pantry or pick up donations from grocery stores or other locations. And finally, though just as important, the focus on companionship provides clients a special connection, where a listening ear or a weekly walk in the park goes a long way to lift spirits and build lasting friendships.
Beyond Aging in Place activities, RSVP volunteers can serve in a variety of other ways.
“Our volunteers can also serve as tutors, office assistants, receptionists, greeters, and more,” Harris said. “The great thing about RSVP is it’s flexible to their schedule and you do not have to be fully retired to join. All you need is a desire to serve your community and some extra time on your hands.”
RSVP works with area nonprofits, such as Habitat for Humanity, YMCA, adult day centers and others to offer its volunteers a variety of opportunities to choose from.
“Our volunteers come from all walks of life and they are always looking for ways to give back, keep busy, or simply to lend a helping hand. Whether it is one hour a week or one hour a month, the impact volunteers have is felt by those they serve, and it’s priceless,” Harris said. “We have volunteers and clients who become incredibly close and it’s so wonderful to see how our clients blossom and cherish the friendships they form with volunteers who are genuinely interested and excited to be there.”
RSVP has done exactly that for Paula Swenson, an RSVP volunteer, and Cheryl, a client who began working with United Way or Porter County after her husband passed away last April. Cheryl, who is legally blind and depended on her husband of over 30 years to be “her eyes,” was struggling to continue to be independent when Paula stepped up and began offering transportation and companionship assistance as a volunteer.
“I had been looking for a new volunteer opportunity since much of my volunteering had been diminished due to COVID-19,” Swenson said. “I saw an opportunity to volunteer my time with Cheryl to take her to the store or doctor’s appointments and offer some companionship after her husband died. I had worked in the medical field for a long time and retired early, so it was a great fit. We became fast friends.”
Cheryl emphasized the importance of programs like RSVP and volunteers like Swenson in order to continue her independent life. Living with a disability has its trials and limitations, things that have become more apparent after losing her husband to cancer.
“Valparaiso doesn’t have accommodations for blind people like bigger cities do,” she explained. “It hadn’t been an issue when my husband was alive because he had been my eyes for years. While the city has such things the beeping crosswalks, accommodations are very limited throughout the city, especially in housing.”
Together, Swenson and Cheryl along with Harris and the RSVP team, have been working hard to find Cheryl a more stable housing situation, one that has the vital accommodations a blind person needs and is affordable for a senior on a fixed income. They see each other every week and frequently chat on the phone, talking about their days and new things that have popped up in each other’s lives. Swenson drives Cheryl to doctor’s appointments and to the grocery store when needed, and the two enjoy walks in local parks when the weather allows it.
“Swenson even helped to connect me with a woman who is also blind and lives a few cities over, and we will talk on the phone every so often to catch up and see how the other is doing,” Cheryl said. “It’s important to have that connection with someone who understands my daily experiences on a personal level.”
Swenson emphasized just how much she has enjoyed her time with Cheryl since beginning to volunteer last July.
“She is a joy to be around,” Swenson said. “This whole experience has been incredible from the start.”
Their friendship, according to Harris, is a feel-good story that encapsulates everything the RSVP program is all about.
“They are like family,” Harris said. “It is the epitome of what we do, of what the purpose of this program is: to serve the people in our community who need companionship and assistance in their everyday lives.”
RSVP is always accepting new volunteers for new assignments. The program is currently in the process of creating a volunteer assignment that will help them to better connect with volunteers via Zoom. The volunteer assignment, called Seniors Connect, will host volunteers on a Zoom call for 30 minutes or less to share a talent, recipe, lead a Zumba class, and more, all to create a variety of assignments to appeal to those the program serves.
RSVP is a regional program, serving Lake, LaPorte, Porter and Starke Counties. For more information about the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program, how to sign up, and for a complete list of organizations the program partners with, visit the program's website at unitedwaypc.org/RSVP.