Story and photos by David A. Fryxell
Randi Olson is barely in the door of Virginia Mischlich's pin-neat house in Tyrone before she's giving the 88-year-old woman a hug. Mischlich, twig-thin and white-haired, looks as though she might snap in the embrace. But don't underestimate her: Since Mischlich moved here from Colorado a few years ago, she's walked nine miles a day every day—"I don't even slow down for the hills," she says. She also bakes up a storm: German-chocolate cake, cranberry-pumpkin bread, you name it and it comes piping hot out of her kitchen. Since Mischlich has to watch her sweets, most of the baked goodies get delivered to neighbors on her walks.
What she can't do any more is drive—she lost her driver's license—and that's where Olson comes in, every Wednesday morning. Today the agenda calls for an appointment at the beauty shop. Some Wednesdays it's shopping, or a cappuccino run—"Then we get crazy, really chatty," says Olson. Other days the two women don't actually go anywhere; they plant peonies or Olson helps with the baking.
Mischlich found her driver—and a new friend—through the matchmaking services of the Volunteer Center in Silver City, a clearinghouse for volunteers that will celebrate the first anniversary of its inaugural volunteer training this spring. Its Partners for Seniors program matches volunteers with homebound seniors who need a hand with transportation, errands and light chores around the house, enabling the seniors to keep living at home and to keep their independence. Other Volunteer Center initiatives find helping hands for local nonprofits ranging from the public library to llama rescue; connect people with service opportunities that are also learning opportunities; and identify mentors for women recovering from substance abuse.
Partners for Seniors, with about 40 volunteers and an equal number of seniors, is the Volunteer Center's oldest and largest program. Olson, who moved to the area in December 2003, got in near the beginning, after seeing a Volunteer Center ad in Desert Exposure.
"My mom, who lives in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., had just lost her driver's license," Olson recalls, finding a perch on Mischlich's couch. "She was getting help down there, and I thought, 'If I can help somebody else's mom be independent and stay in their
"Her mom is about my age," Mischlich pipes up. "I'll be 89 years old on March 6."
The Volunteer Center interviewed Olson and brought her together with Mischlich, who says, "She has been a blessing to me."
"And she has been a blessing to me," Olson adds. "We've really come to care about each other."
"It's a real friendship," says the older woman. "There's nothing better than a real friend. She's there for anything I need. If something comes up, it's so good to know I have a friend like that."
The idea of a clearinghouse to match those in need with those willing to lend a hand first came up about three years ago, says Lisa Grinnell, program director for the Volunteer Center. A core group of local people began to coalesce behind the idea—"So many people thought about it at about the same time," she says—and a subcommittee of the Grant County Community Health Council set out to make it a reality. A small grant from the McCune Foundation was followed by a 30-month, $35,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The First United Methodist Church donated office space at 915 Santa Rita St. in Silver City, which the center shares with the Red Cross and Habitat for Humanity. The doors opened in December 2003, and the Volunteer Center held its first training session last April.
Helping homebound seniors was a natural project for the fledgling Volunteer Center, given the area's increasing lure as a place to retire. That's brought both potential volunteers and seniors whose retirement dreams have taken an unexpected turn, leaving them in need of help to remain independent.
"We really saw a need," says Grinnell. "So many people have moved here from larger cities. They may not have family here or friends. We saw a wonderful potential here to create connections."
Margie Sifuentes, a volunteer with the VISTA program, was recruited to coordinate the Partners for Seniors volunteers. At first, though, she wasn't so sure about this: "My mom had just passed away at age 93," Sifuentes recalls, "and I started dealing with elders again. It was kind of hard to do that another time, so I decided to call it quits. But then I got home and decided maybe this is a sort of second chance for me to help, so I said, 'OK, I'll try it one more time.'"
She's never looked back. "These elders might be 89, 93 years old, but they teach me a lot. I learn from them," Sifuentes says. "They become like my mother. It's a joy to help out.
"Sometimes they need transportation to a medical appointment or a ride to the beauty shop, or need a light bulb changed. Other times they just want to sit down and talk, or share their old pictures or bake cookies."
"People start out thinking they're asking for transportation," Grinnell adds, "and they end up with a friend." She recalls one of the program's first recipients, a man in his early 60s who'd moved to the area and then developed ultimately fatal kidney disease: "He needed transportation to and from dialysis, and there was no one he knew whom he was comfortable asking. We found seven volunteers who took turns helping him. One would take him and another would pick him up six hours later. He made seven new friends who made the last months of his life much more meaningful."
For the volunteers, the program can also be a way to connect with the community. "A lot of people move to Silver City and want to help somebody," Sifuentes says. "They find they have nobody around here. The volunteers will get acquainted with the seniors; they become like a little family."
"The volunteers are often retired themselves," says Grinnell. "I think it helps that they can see what's ahead, the hardest part of the aging process, and how important it is for somebody to be there."
Carol Morrison pokes her head out the door of Albert Millan's small house in the Arenas Valley. "Don't worry about Sparky," she calls, meaning the dog watching warily from just beyond a faded "Beware of the Dog" sign. "He only gets upset if you try to mess with Albert's electric wheelchair."
Millan, age 74, who lost both legs to diabetes a few years ago, is making do with a manual wheelchair right now, which limits his ability to get around his yard and do yard work. He burned out his electric wheelchair—"They told me I put more mileage on it than on a car," Millan says with a gruff grin—and is awaiting a replacement.
Even with an electric wheelchair, however, Millan's mobility is limited to his house and yard. For about the past three years, he says, that's meant he has been unable to get to church on Sunday mornings. He heard about the Volunteer Center and gave them a call, hoping to find someone who would help.
Carol Morrison had been volunteering through the center, off and on, nearly since its inception. She'd retired to Silver City a little over four years ago. "I'd worked 38 years, and one of the joys of being retired is being able to volunteer," she says. She'd taken on a lot of last-minute volunteer needs, but was reluctant to sign on for "a steady weekly gig" because of her frequent out-of-town travels.
When the center approached her about Millan's Sunday-morning need, however, she gave it some thought. Whenever she's in town, she attends the local Unitarian-Universalist fellowship on Sundays, so swinging by to take Millan to St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church wouldn't be difficult. "I could do that," she decided. She met Millan in early fall and agreed to drive him to church every other Sunday, which left her flexibility to travel on alternate weekends.
If it seems strange for a Unitarian to be going out of her way to take a Catholic to Mass, neither Morrison nor Millan thinks so. "I love the drive into the country," she says, "and it's only maybe an extra hour to drop Albert at St. Vincent's and pick him up again. And we get to visit on the way there and back."
Though Morrison is a relative newcomer to the area and Millan was born and raised in San Lorenzo, "it turns out we have a lot in common," she says. "We have some of the same politics. And he did a lot of volunteer work himself."
Millan points with pride to the plaques over the sofa, one of which recalls his being honored as Knights of Columbus Knight of the Year. "I used to help people get food stamps," he says. "I was a union representative. I worked at Kennicott for 33 years, starting when I was age 14."
But diabetes took Millan out of this house where he's lived for 35 years, into a nursing home for a couple of years, and claimed both legs. Even after he returned home, there were so many things people take for granted that he couldn't do any more—like something as simple as going to church.
"Oh yes, I needed help," he says, then his dark eyes twinkle: "But I didn't want nobody to say I was trying to take Father Rod's place, so we decided it was better to go every other Sunday."
Morrison and Millan's relationship quickly became more than just driver and passenger, volunteer and recipient. They became friends. When he got sick in December and had to be hospitalized, she visited him in the hospital. He tells her about the old days, the region's history and working at the mine.
"Volunteering is just pure joy," she says.
Besides the Partners for Seniors program, the Volunteer Center quickly branched out to facilitate other forms of volunteering in the area. Mona Woodard, who is with the Americorps program, was brought on as a full-time volunteer coordinator, matching people with needs at nonprofits of all sorts.
"It takes a lot of creativity to make the right match. It's very intuitive," says Grinnell.
"Some people call, some just walk in the door," says Woodard. The center's volunteer database now numbers more than 150, she says.
A bulletin board over her head lists some of the organizations she's connected volunteers with: the Grant County Humane Society, the Silver City Public Library, Southwest Llama Rescue, Casa Mia Ranch for the emotionally and physically disabled, Serenity Acres horse rescue. When Penny Park needed help before the holidays for its annual Festival of Trees, the Volunteer Center came through. When the library needed shelving built for its children's books and someone to coordinate its homebound book-delivery program, the Volunteer Center made the matches.
"Serenity Acres had a booth at the Red Paint Powwow and needed volunteers to man it," Woodard adds. "We got them four volunteers. For some short-term projects we just email to all the volunteers who have email."
She's matched up the WNMU Drama Club with volunteer opportunities and sent retired teachers to read to children at El Grito Head Start. She's found volunteers to help lead horses around at Casa Mia Ranch.
"There are lots of different options," Woodard says, "and we're always open to suggestions."
The center's latest initiative has been the Hermanas program, a partnership with Border Area Mental Health Services that matches exemplary women mentors with women who are recovering from substance abuse. The mentors provide help with life skills and serve as role models. The idea has already attracted a grant from the Frost Foundation, and next year the center hopes to expand to a similar mentoring program for men.
The Volunteer Center also recently joined with agencies in seven southwest New Mexico counties to start a Grab Bar Initiative, which aims to install bathroom safety bars in the homes of 2,200 low-income senior citizens over the next three years, to prevent falls. "Our goal was to launch a modest volunteer program to install safety bars," Grinnell explains, "but we discovered a need far greater and more immediate than anticipated."
A small McCune Foundation grant funded a pilot grab-bar project in Grant County. Now the center will hand off the burgeoning project to the Community Action Agency, which will administer it for Grant, Hidalgo, Luna, Dona Ana, Sierra, Catron and Socorro counties. Local legislators Sen. Ben Altamirano and Sen. Leonard Lee Rawson will seek up to $300,000 in state funding for the expanded Grab-Bar Initiative.
Grinnell says, "This will improve quality of life for thousands of seniors and will end up saving taxpayer money in the bargain. If we can prevent falls for 10 low-income seniors annually who might otherwise be hospitalized for acute or long-term care at a cost of $25,000 each, the project could save counties and the state $250,000 annually for seven counties alone, or $750,000 over a three-year period."
In the next nine months, the Volunteer Center will again broaden its reach beyond Grant County, boosting a program in which volunteers help fill out the complex paperwork for low-income medication assistance. The center is already working with the Wellness Coalition locally, and will be facilitating similar volunteer programs in Luna, Catron and Hidalgo counties.
"We'll go wherever the need is," says Grinnell.
This April, the center will mark the first anniversary of its volunteer training with a volunteer-recognition banquet and fundraising run. The center is working with SWORD (Southwest Outreach for Diabetes) and hoping to coordinate the event with the grand opening of the Boston Hill trail system. US Sen. Jeff Bingaman, the Volunteer Center's honorary chairman, is a runner, Grinnell says, so the idea was a natural.
Virginia Mischlich, almost 89, could probably outpace many of the participants in that event, given her nine-miles-a-day walking regimen. By April, though, she'll have company: Randi Olson's mother is moving here from Florida.
"I'm going to get her a volunteer, too," says Olson. "And we'll have to have lunch, so Virginia here can tell my mom nice things about me."
That won't be a problem. "She lifts my morale so much," says Mischlich. "God has really blessed us."
"You get back so much more than you give," says Olson, putting an arm around her new friend. "I walk out of here every Wednesday morning with a smile on my face."
David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert Exposure.