By KEVIN CHIRI
Tammany West news
MANDEVILLE – The volunteers could use more volunteers.
When locals hear the name “Volunteers of America,” it’s easy to assume, “they must have a lot of volunteers.”
But the Volunteers of America organization on the North Shore is reaching a dire situation with a need for volunteers.
That is partially due to the fact VOA continues to be the coordinating group to provide volunteers for approximately 30 St. Tammany Parish non-profits, not to mention utilizing volunteers for nearly a dozen of their own in-house programs.
“For over 100 years, VOA has had a mission to help those in need,” Development Manager Caitlin Scanlan said. “But we now partner with over 30 non-profits in the area and help them have enough volunteers, not to mention heading up our own programs. We really need more volunteers.”
Volunteers of America is a crucial part of so many well-known organizations on the North Shore. They provide some of the help for groups like Habitat for Humanity, the Covington Food Bank, American Red Cross, the Samaritan Center, Senior Medicare Patrol, Operation We Care and much more.
But besides helping staff nearly 30 community and civic groups in the parish, they have a host of their own programs that need volunteers as well.
One of the in-house departments for VOA is Faith in Action, an interfaith care-giving initiative that provides assistance and support to the elderly and is headed by VOA Assistant Director Dee Wild, a North Shore resident who has given her life to serving others.
“I love what I do here, but to be a volunteer, you need a heart to serve others and that is what we are looking for,” she said.
“There is such a great need for individuals to assist our elderly population,” she said. “And you can do it in any number of ways, big or little, with some of our volunteers simply making a phone call every now and then to check on one of our seniors. It can mean so much to them when someone calls to talk to them.”
Wild said the Faith in Action program is down to only 15 volunteers, yet they get calls every day from seniors in the parish who need help. One of the biggest needs is for volunteers to drive seniors to appointments, the grocery store, or to errands they cannot handle alone anymore.
“Our goal in this program is really about trying to help seniors stay independent in their homes, so a car ride from someone to the store or doctor’s office can mean so much,” Wild explained. “But there are so many who need assistance and we simply need more volunteers.”
Wild said that something as simple as going to a doctor’s appointment can take on an entirely new meaning when an individual comes to help.
“Rather than taking a taxi, or being dropped off by someone—which then might require extra hours to wait for the ride to pick them up—it means the world to one of our seniors when someone comes to the house, picks them up, goes to the appointment with them, and waits for them to finish before they are taken home,” she said.
“The beauty of this, and so many other volunteer opportunities like this with seniors, is that a relationship is started for the senior when they chat on the way to the appointment or after it’s over. The senior gets something out of it, but so does the volunteer,” she said.
Volunteers are also needed to check on seniors who live alone, or possibly to help with chores such as cutting the grass or light housekeeping.
“Whatever you are willing to do, that is what we will set you up to do, and it is pretty much in the time period when you are available,” Wild said. “We find that this kind of personal contact reduces the isolation so many seniors fall into when a spouse dies, and it helps them in many ways—even helping with their health since they take better care of themselves when they know someone is coming to see them.”
A similar program to Faith in Action is the RSVP program, which solicits those 55-and-over to also become volunteers. But Wild said that program is beginning to suffer from many of their longtime volunteers becoming too old to serve.
“So we need volunteers of every age, and we will plug you into the program you feel comfortable in,” Scanlan said.
Ty Bartel is the director of the North Shore bureau of VOA and is more closely involved with some of the in-house programs, particularly the mental health services for those with no insurance or the underinsured.
He said that VOA offers the Care Crisis Response Services, which includes a suicide prevention program where they work with local law enforcement agencies, and respond to suicide attempts. Last year he said they had over 500 calls, but thanks to their followup, over half of those individuals received treatment for the problem leading to the suicide attempt.
“There continues to be a dire need for mental health services in this area,” said Bartel, a licensed clinical social worker. “Money is the problem with the state and federal budget cuts so we are trying to fill the gap the best we can by providing the right people for those in need.”
VOA also has a program that seeks housing for the homeless, while focusing on education for those without jobs, so they can be better trained to get jobs and finally support themselves.
Bartel came to the North Shore in 1990 and obtained his Master’s degree in social work from Tulane before working as the director for the Orleans Parish School Board.
“Even the services we have in the area are not affordable to many people,” he added. “Our funding has been cut too, but we are committed to being here for people who need this help.”
Wild is clearly a volunteer with a heart for others, seen from 21 years working as the director of the Louisiana Association of Search and Rescue dogs while serving at the national level with the National Search Dog Association. She came on board with VOA 11 years ago and remained through the challenging years after Katrina.
“My heart has always been in volunteering, and helping people, whether through the search dog group, or now with VOA,” she said. “But we truly need more people to help us so we can help others.”
The organizations that benefit from the Greater New Orleans VOA are from Slidell to the Mandeville/Covington area, meaning the volunteers are needed throughout the parish.
“We have a great need in Slidell right now, but we serve 30 different sites throughout the parish so you can see we need help everywhere,” she said. “We can plug you in for any situation you want to serve in, or for whatever time you are available.”
You can get more information or offer to volunteer by calling the office at 985-674-0488.