It’s easy to pinpoint the absolutely essential ingredient at the thriving nonprofit Island Volunteer Caregivers (IVC). It’s right there in the name: Volunteers, of course.
Unlike at most social service agencies, virtually all person-to-person services at IVC are provided by trained volunteers, for free, to their community neighbors in need of a helping hand.
The volunteers are not professional caregivers, and they do no hands-on caregiving. What they do is such everyday tasks as driving to medical appointments or to shopping, providing companionship or doing light household tasks.
The goal is to help people stay in their own homes, living dignified, socially connected lives despite advancing age or disability.
But helping out is never a one-way street, as volunteer Jeff Brown pointed out. After 30 years commuting to Seattle, he found he knew very little about the actual life of the island community — even its traffic patterns — when he retired two years ago. “I wanted to be more engaged,” he said, “and I have heard so many interesting stories and crossed paths with so many people I otherwise would never have met.”
Any agist stereotypes quickly disappeared as he realized “older people have just as varied interests as younger people.”
Brown jumped right in and agreed to be trained by Kitsap Transit to drive the brand-new van the agency provides IVC for “life enrichment” trips. Those could be anything from driving a group to shopping in Silverdale to his regular Tuesday night movie runs and recent transportation to the Great Decision lectures at Bethany Lutheran. (IVC welcomes new van driver volunteers.) “Some of these events I would attend anyway. It’s easy for me to bring others along,” he said. “What an opportunity to give back.”
Both Brown and fellow retiree Jack Johnson were attracted by the great flexibility IVC offers its volunteers. All volunteers learn of needs through a daily e-mail. “Picking up” any request depends entirely on their choice, with no regular or minimum commitment required. However, many volunteers do decide to regularly help the same care receivers, with new friendships frequently the result.
When Johnson retired four years ago from his career as a lawyer (including a stint as Bainbridge city attorney) he plotted out how he wished his retirement hours “portfolio” to unfold. He wished to dedicate a portion to “service,” and now he spends several hours monthly volunteering for IVC.
He splits his time almost equally between offering technical help to people who, for example, are unsure how exactly to set up that new Kindle or iPad gifted them by their younger relatives. The other half of his hours is dedicated to such “nuts and bolts” handyman tasks as hanging shades or fixing lamps. “I’ve always liked that kind of thing,” he admitted.
IVC volunteers frequently express exactly that satisfaction. “I just love IVC,” said retired nurse Elizabeth Ristine who treasures the one-on-one relationships it affords. She has developed a particularly deep relationship with one caregiver. “It’s just so easy to volunteer and the opportunities are so varied. You can even help out at the office on Finch Place.”
She added that through volunteering she has become more aware there are many people on the island who live in “very humble apartments. Some are very isolated. The people on Bainbridge are very lucky to have such a service.”
“You can make of your volunteering what you want,” said another retiree. She regularly chauffeurs two women to chair yoga at the senior center and another to a caregiver support group offered through IVC. In the summer she also helps out IVC’s Flowers from the Heart program by delivering fresh bouquets of donated flowers to people around the island needing a little lift and reassurance that someone cares.
Equally important, she and her husband are willing to drive into Seattle with care receivers needing medical attention over there. “We go together and make an outing of it,” she explained. “We’ve met such interesting people.”
Not that every volunteer is a retiree, of course. Annie Hillier was an island grown kid who grew into a young Bainbridge city planner. While employed nine to five, she still manages to fit volunteer stints into her after work or weekend hours — or perhaps even does a quick run to the grocery store in Winslow during her lunch hour. “It’s not much extra out of my day,” she said.
Hillier first heard of IVC from the “IVC Volunteers Needed” message that Town & Country Market periodically puts up on its reader board. As several volunteers mentioned, she did her homework online to find out more. She already knew she was interested in working with people rather than doing such things as trail building or beach cleanups during her volunteer hours.
Although IVC staff and board have been somewhat concerned that potential volunteers may be put off by the title “caregiver,” Hillier embraces it. “I love being able to call myself a volunteer caregiver,” she said. “I think it makes me sound probably a better person than I really am. We do simple but very meaningful things.”
IVC program manager Robin Gaphni has watched the requests for services grow 10 to 15 percent annually. She is convinced, “We can never have too many volunteers.”
If you want to learn more, go to the website IVCBainbridge.org or call the office at 206-842-4441.
All potential volunteers going through a screening process, a car safety check, and short training. Care receivers are also individually assessed to make sure their needs can be appropriately met by volunteers.
Susan Bottles is a past Island Volunteer Caregivers board president and current volunteer.