JOHNSON COUNTY– They fill critical community needs, furnishing manpower and services to some of Johnson County’s most vulnerable populations. They are friends to the elderly, delivering meals and transporting them to medical appointments, providing in-home safety checks, helping them navigate the complex supplemental health insurance system, and keeping them safe from financial fraud and identity theft. They serve our youth, mentoring them through challenging times and tutoring them through difficult schoolwork, writing them letters, reading to them and modeling confident public speaking skills. They assist in crisis intervention, emergency preparedness, and domestic violence intervention. They are stewards of the environment and also serve our nation’s veterans.
They are the volunteers of Johnson County RSVP– Retired and Senior Volunteer Program– a collective force of persons 55 years and older who have the desire and inclination to serve others.
RSVP is a national program of the Corporation for National and Community Service SeniorCorps, sponsored locally by the county’s Elder Services Agency since 1990. Elder Services oversees many programs and initiatives that assist area seniors in staying active, independent and safe. RSVP places volunteers to meet the needs of these programs.
“We connect people to purpose,” said RSVP Advisory Council chair Jackie Brennan. She attended the April 9 North Liberty City Council meeting in which mayor Tom Salm read a proclamation to commemorate the very first Mayor’s Day of Recognition for National Service.
Brennan shared the figures of the group’s collective accomplishments for fiscal year 2012.
“Last year, 529 members provided 38,360 hours of service to our community, saving local governments $673,218,” Brennan said. Locally, RSVP serves the four counties of Johnson, Des Moines, Muscatine and Iowa. “One hundred thirty Rock and Read volunteers, tutors and mentors served over 120 teachers and 450 students in reading, writing and public speaking programming. Sixteen Meals-On-Wheels drivers deliver meals to about 160 homebound individuals every day of the week. In addition, as a partner with SEATS, the new local transportation program provided 645 door-through-door rides to people who needed to get to medical appointments.”
“It’s a very impressive list,” Salm said to Brennan.
But the few minutes Brennan had to describe the program weren’t long enough to paint a comprehensive picture of the impact RSVP has on the community and, ultimately, people’s lives.
Joan Cook has been with Elder Services since 1985, and now serves as RSVP’s director. She is also the person who pairs volunteers with positions that need to be filled. When a volunteer comes through the door, he or she will visit with Cook about how they would like to serve, what populations they would like to work with and how many hours they would like to contribute. A standard background check is required for the safety of participants.
“I focus on the needs of older adults and children. Volunteers might have a preference to work with one or the other, or sometimes they do both,” said Cook. “I ask them what are their passions, and I try to fit that into the volunteer opportunities, so they can do something they look forward to. So many of them say (volunteering) is the highlight of their day.”
Many older volunteers come to serve in the Rock & Read program because they love reading to children.
“There are so many reasons to enrich a child’s life by helping them with a most important skill of a lifetime, which is reading, and the love of reading is one of the most important gifts you can give a child,” Cook said.
The time commitment is entirely up to the volunteer, customizable to his or her own schedule and interests. Volunteers can still go on vacation or be gone for the winter, as Cook will arrange for a substitute volunteer if necessary.
There are even ways for homebound people or those with mobility issues to volunteer in RSVP. Many volunteers become Pen Pals, corresponding by letter back and forth to students, then visiting the classrooms just twice a year. People can serve as volunteer patients for visiting nursing students, which provides practice for the nursing students in taking medical histories and assessing older patients with a variety of health histories.
Other volunteer experiences are more physical; for example, RSVP participants helped the City of Iowa City do a creek-side clean up of Ralston Creek recently, trimming brush and removing trash, passing out water or taking photographs of the event.
And one of the biggest needs– particularly in North Liberty, where public transportation is limited– is getting people from place to place. RSVP fills a large gap in this area. Nancy Sereduck is RSVP’s Transportation Coordinator, and she is looking for volunteers who are able to drive for two crucial RSVP initiatives; Meals on Wheels, and the new door-through-door transportation program.
“North Liberty is getting larger all the time, and the biggest problem they have is transportation,” said Sereduck. “North Liberty doesn’t have regular transportation for seniors or people with health issues. And if transportation needs aren’t met, their social needs can’t be met either.”
Johnson County’s SEATS bus only comes to North Liberty three times a day, three days a week. Studies have shown that transportation is the second greatest need (behind long-term care) of elders in our country, as they often outlive their ability to drive by eight to 10 years. With RSVP’s transport system, the driver walks the rider through the door of the health care facility, stays while the rider completes the appointment, and walks them back to the vehicle and transports them home again.
“Getting them to and from medical appointments helps sustain them in their homes. It also saves the state and federal government a lot of money if people can age in place in their homes, because if they have to be on Medicaid in nursing homes, it is very expensive,” said Cook. “That helps people who may not be able to take SEATS because they need oxygen or need to get back and forth more quickly, because sometimes there is a wait time before and after,” said Cook.
Delivering Meals on Wheels also has a need for volunteers, said Cook. New drivers are trained by experienced drivers, and it takes about an hour and a half to deliver North Liberty’s meals each day. It is a very rewarding position, she added.
“That could be the only person (the homebound) person sees all day. They become very endeared to the people they deliver meals to,” Cook said.
RSVP’s volunteer experiences and the services they provide lead to rewards all the way around, including longevity and health benefits. According to a study from the University of Miami School of Medicine, “older volunteers were found to have significantly higher degree of life satisfaction, stronger will to live and fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety than elderly non-volunteers).”
Studies such as these are increasingly important to programs like RSVP that are funded by grants, which often must be renewed annually. At Elder Services, Inc., progress reports are a very important piece of the program.
“There is a lot of record keeping, data collection and impact reporting,” said Cook. And she sees the benefits anecdotally as well.
“When people are working, they have a purpose, they have a community around them and feel success at the end of the day,” said Cook. “Our volunteers stay with the program for years and years. I think that states a lot about their connection to something valuable. Volunteering is one of the last things people give up, because it means so much to them.
And with a rewarding job like hers, Cook said she may never give up working.
“People keep asking me if I am going to retire. How would I replace what I do in my other life? Because I am always connecting people who are so happy to be connected to whatever they are doing. Even if I retired, what better thing could I retire to?”
To learn more about RSVP, make donations, to inquire about volunteering or requesting services, call 319-338-0515 or visit www.elderservicesinc.com .