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Senior citizens find volunteer sites through Appalachian Senior Programs

By Kesha Williams

BOONE, N.C.—Thanks to the Appalachian Senior Programs, senior citizens in the High Country are volunteering to meet the needs of their neighbors.

View larger imageTammy Taylor, director of the Appalachian Foster Grandparent Program, left, and Debbie Wellborn, director of the Appalachian Senior Companion Program, oversee programs that assign senior citizen volunteers with fellow senior citizens and school youths in five surrounding counties. Submitted photoView larger imageKay Jones, a five-year volunteer with the Appalachian Foster Grandparent program, assists elementary school students with reading and math. Photo by Kathy Graham

Through the Appalachian Senior Companion Program and the Appalachian Foster Grandparent Program, area senior citizens assist some of the region’s youngest and oldest residents in five counties: Alleghany, Ashe, Avery, Watauga and Wilkes.

Dr. Ed Folts, a sociology professor at Appalachian State University and executive director of the two programs, oversees the federal and local grants that fund both programs. The federal funding comes from the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS): a $248,985 grant funds the Appalachian Senior Companion Program and a $375,396 grant funds the Appalachian Foster Grandparent Program.

Appalachian Senior Companion Program

Through the Appalachian Senior Companion Program, low-income senior citizens age 55 and older help their peer senior citizens remain independent. Director Debbie Wellborn said these seniors provide one-on-one services to individuals who have been identified as “at risk” of losing their independence due to little or no family support to assist with tasks of daily living.

“These individuals do not qualify for skilled nursing care and cannot afford to hire companions privately. Senior companion volunteers assist with meal preparation, proper nutrition, errands, transportation and daily living tasks that allow the individuals to remain independent in their own homes,” Wellborn said.

“Those served have improved access to medical and other needed services as a direct result of senior companions providing peer support and assistance. Senior companions serve frail older adults, adults with disabilities, and those with terminal illnesses, and offer respite for caregivers who are in the workforce or (who are) elderly themselves,” Wellborn said.

Wellborn estimates there are 160 senior citizens volunteering in these two programs. Geraldine Vannoy, a seven-year volunteer with the Appalachian Senior Companion Program, said caregiving is a way of life in this region. Family ties prompted her to return 15 years ago after living elsewhere much of her adult life. Her grandmother as a senior citizen required a caregiver, Vannoy’s mother, before dying. Vannoy thereafter realized her mother, then a senior citizen, wasn’t healthy or stable enough to live alone. With the help of an attentive volunteer from the Appalachian Senior Companion Program, they oversaw her mother’s declining health until she died. Years later, Vannoy had the pleasure of being a senior companion to that same volunteer during her last years of life.

“She knew I loved her and she loved me. She was like family. We had a lot in common. I would assist her with meals and stay with her during the day until her children came from work to stay with her overnight,” Vannoy said.

For Vannoy, it was like returning a gift that had been given to her. That volunteer assignment ended following the woman’s death and Vannoy is now completing another assignment. She recommends healthy seniors who might enjoy this program and seniors who are still independent consider the Appalachian Senior Companion Program. She said it’s one way senior citizens can stay active while showing compassion to fellow seniors. The advantages, Vannoy pointed out, are participants can set their schedule of volunteer hours and learn health tips and lifestyle tips during monthly volunteer meetings. Wellborn schedules guest presenters to speak during those meetings with volunteers.

Appalachian Foster Grandparent Program

Through the Appalachian Foster Grandparent Program, senior citizens age 55 and above provide support services to infants and youths up to the teenage years who have particular emotional, social or educational needs. These seniors contribute 20 to 40 hours a week to their young, fellow citizens. The program enrolls and places 100 foster grandparents with children within the five-county area. Director Tammy Taylor said the program recruits, trains and places low-income senior citizens in area elementary schools, head start centers and developmental delayed day care centers.

“Foster grandparent volunteers engage children through activities including goal setting, homework assistance, reading and math skills development and behavior management exercises. The Appalachian Foster Grandparent Program is the largest senior volunteer agency in our area. Currently, we provide over 85,608 hours of service to 428 children who have been identified as needing special attention by their teachers,” Taylor said.

Kay Jones has been volunteering as an Appalachian Foster Grandparent for five years. She volunteers approximately 28 hours a week at North Wilkesboro Elementary School. After retiring from full-time employment and raising a family, she followed a friend’s suggestion to volunteer. Jones helps the students with reading and her favorite subject, math. Their teacher selects books from the school’s literacy library as assignments so Jones can assist her third-grade readers.

“I love working with the kids. You see a light in their eyes and they get what you are trying to teach them. Just that moment you realize they’ve got it,” Jones said.

“We sit around the table and take turns reading. I tell them, ‘The better you read, the more you learn, and the more you learn the more you earn.’ I have even mentioned [Appalachian Foster Grandparent Program] to some of my friends. To me it’s just rewarding sharing with them,” Jones said.

According to Folts, Appalachian has received federal grants and funds from various local sources to support the Appalachian Senior Companion Programs since 2003. He said there is a growing need for both programs, which have been successful at meeting the needs of seniors and youths. The future of these programs, Folts said, depends on the availability of federal grants. Folts explained there is concern among organizations like the National Association for Foster Grandparent Program Directors that large federal budget reductions could decrease the federal grants that support senior programs across the nation.

About Appalachian State University

Appalachian State University, in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, prepares students to lead purposeful lives as global citizens who understand and engage their responsibilities in creating a sustainable future for all. The transformational Appalachian experience promotes a spirit of inclusion that brings people together in inspiring ways to acquire and create knowledge, to grow holistically, to act with passion and determination, and embrace diversity and difference. As one of 17 campuses in the University of North Carolina system, Appalachian enrolls about 18,000 students, has a low student-to-faculty ratio and offers more than 150 undergraduate and graduate majors.