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New program to help seniors remain in their homes set to launch soon

Island seniors will be able to call upon volunteers to help with a variety of everyday tasks when a new program launches next month.

Neighbor to Neighbor, more than two years in the making, is intended to help islanders remain in their homes as they age by providing services, such as lawn mowing, driving to the grocery store or someone simply calling to check in, through a network of trained volunteers.

“Connecting people, that is the bottom line,” said Emma Amiad, who has been active in the group’s planning efforts from the beginning.

The Vashon Senior Center’s board recently voted to adopt the program, which will launch Nov. 4, said Ava Apple, the senior center’s director.

A training session for prospective volunteers will take place next week, and more volunteers are welcome. As of last week, five people had signed up, and Apple said she is hoping for a dozen volunteers to begin the program.

Neighbor to Neighbor was initiated in early 2011, when an island caregiver called a group of women together after seeing seniors contend with problems that she thought volunteers could solve.

Indeed, island seniors have a large need for assistance, said Apple, who also has been part of developing Neighbor to Neighbor from its earliest stages.

“There is not a month that goes by that I don’t get several calls for help that is not out there — as simple as hanging a shower curtain or changing a lightbulb,” Apple said. “Those small things snowball, and before you know it, they are looking at moving off-island to assisted living or a retirement community.”

In fact, Amiad said, the Neighbor to Neighbor board spent considerable time determining just what island seniors’ needs are and even conducted a survey in 2011.

More than 400 Vashon residents responded to the survey, Apple said, and three issues ranked as top concerns for aging on the island: upkeep of property, isolation and transportation.

These are solvable problems, Apple noted, and meeting the challenges can help islanders “age in place,” as many are now calling the trend of living at home in one’s senior years.

“Volunteers with Neighbor to Neighbor should be able to address these concerns,” she said. “Isolation is as simple as a phone call. Almost any volunteer could pick up the phone every other day and call.”

People 55 and older are eligible for the program, Apple said, and she expects many people will benefit, including those recovering from illness and needing assistance with yard work, for example, or seniors who need occasional help with household tasks, errands or on-island transportation. But the program is not intended to replace more permanent or professional assistance.

“We are not going to put any housekeeper, caregivers, handymen or gardeners out of work,” she said.

Volunteers 18 and older are welcome, as are children with their parents. Apple said she hopes islanders with a variety of skills will step forward, including those with good repair skills, technology wizards and those who could simply visit with someone.

“Everyone has something that they can give,” she said.

Islander Debra Taylor recently became involved in Neighbor to Neighbor and plans to volunteer after serving in a similar capacity in Ohio. The work is a valuable to service to the community, she said, and brings rewards all around.

“It made a difference for the individuals, and I became involved in their families,” she added. “It gave more to me than I gave to them.”

Volunteers will undergo background checks, and Apple said she will also obtain driving records of those who will provide transportation. Part of next week’s training will be given over to a CPR class that Vashon Island Fire & Rescue will provide free to five volunteers, with the other volunteers set receive that training later. All the volunteers will receive training in confidentiality, what to expect when visiting an elder, listening skills, handling wheelchairs and walkers and noticing potential red flags that more assistance might be needed.

Once volunteers start helping, Apple said she believes the initial connections will bloom.

“I anticipate that the relationship between volunteer and elder will take on a life of its own,” she said. “The island is a perfect place for something like this to work.”

Neighbor to Neighbor is based in part on the Village to Village Network, which has more than 100 so-called villages in four countries and more than 100 more being organized, all aimed at providing support to seniors and helping them remain in their homes.

As the island group developed Neighbor to Neighbor, Apple said, they consulted with Village to Village groups, including one in Seattle.

Typically, Apple said, seniors pay between $300 and $600 dollars to be a part of the program, but the developers of Neighbor to Neighbor wanted its services to be free and accessible to anyone, regardless of their financial means.

To that end, Amiad raised roughly $5,000 to fund the program through the end of the year, she said, which will cover Apple’s salary for 10 hours a week. Granny’s Attic recently awarded the senior center a $6,000 grant to fund the program for first half of 2014 and will provide an additional $6,000 if the program meets certain benchmarks.

Apple expressed gratitude for the Granny’s gift, especially since as a new organization, Neighbor to Neighbor does not yet have a track record.

“The support of Granny’s, that’s huge,” she said.

Also important, Amiad said, is that the program now belongs to the Vashon Senior Center. As they researched other groups, the founders learned that many of the groups that were successful were associated with a senior center or other social service agency.

“Our goal all along was to marry ourselves to the senior center, which is where it belonged,” Amiad said.

For some time, the senior center did not have the capacity to carry the program, Apple said, but earlier this year, she felt ready to take it on and after years of working on it in a volunteer capacity, is pleased to launch the program.

“I think this is going to be really successful,” she said.

To volunteer for Neighbor to Neighbor, sign up for services or get more information, call Ava Apple at the Vashon Senior Center at 463-5173. A volunteer training session will take place on Saturday, Oct. 19.

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