Volunteer aid program in peril

Jim Stegall, left, considers the options as Friends and Neighbors volunteer Rita O’Clair reads a list of audio books that may potentially captivate Stegall’s interest. That’s Amelio, Stegall’s guide dog, at center.  - Journal photo / Scott Rasmussen
Jim Stegall, left, considers the options as Friends and Neighbors volunteer Rita O’Clair reads a list of audio books that may potentially captivate Stegall’s interest. That’s Amelio, Stegall’s guide dog, at center.
— image credit: Journal photo / Scott Rasmussen

Six years ago when he needed to get to Seattle in a hurry for an operation scheduled at the last minute, Jim Stegall knew he would have to have some help getting there.

So Stegall, legally blind and unable to drive himself, called the senior center hoping a program that he had only heard about at that time, Friends and Neighbors, might have a solution.

Turns out he not only got that ride, but Stegall stumbled onto a program that since that time has provided the help in taking care of all those “little things” and allows him to remain mostly independent and living on his own.

He also relies heavily on Amelio, a specially trained guide dog.

“It works as a big bridge that stabilizes things for me,” Stegall said of the Friends and Neighbors program. “My blindness was getting to the point where it was quite difficult. Without my dog and the help of Friends and Neighbors I probably wouldn’t be able to live at home.”

Though his ailment may be unique, Stegall is not alone. Not by a long shot.

In fact, the backbone of the Friends and Neighbors program, is its team of volunteers, who have contributed roughly 7,500 hours of assistance to about 35 “clients,” mostly elderly, like Stegall, in each of the past two years.

But the program, launched 11 years ago by volunteers, is in jeopardy, according to San Juan Island Senior Services Coordinator Curt Van Hyning.

In years past, charitable groups, such as United Way and the San Juan Island Community Foundation, have funded roughly half of the program’s $16,900 annual budget with yearly grants.

But philanthropic groups have seen their financial resources dry up as of late.

And Van Hyning said the program must raise $7,000 in grants or donations to keep its one paid employee, Pam Fry, who earns $525 a month, managing the program.

Van Hyning said that Fry, a registered nurse, has proven instrumental in assessing the needs of clients and matching those with the schedules, abilities and personalities of the volunteers, and tracking each interaction.

“It only works when someone is keeping track and bird-dogging all that’s going on,” he said. “Pam is the key.”

Rita O’Clair, a retired educator, had some time on her hands and a desire to help people in need when she stumbled upon Friends and Neighbors. She spends a couple hours a week helping Stegall sort his mail, jot down reference numbers of audio books he’s interested in and motivating him to keep up with his laundry.

Like Van Hyning, O’Clair agrees that Friends and Neighbors would likely fall apart without Fry monitoring the program.

“She’s so encouraging to all the volunteers,” O’Clair said. “She makes you feel like a million bucks. She lavishes on the praise. But I also have to file a report with each interaction I have. She makes sure I do that.”

Van Hyning said that Friends and Neighbors has submitted a $4,000 grant application to the United Way for funding in 2012. That leaves another $3,000 in donations yet to be raised to keep the program up and running through the coming year.

The Community Foundation, which kept Friends and Neighbors afloat through the remainder of this year with an emergency contribution from its Women’s Fund, is setting up a forum on its website where donations can be funneled directly to Friends and Neighbors, according to the Foundation’s Pamela Gross.

Van Hyning said Friends and Neighbors has become a vital resource among the senior center community.

The goal now, he said, is simply to keep it up and running.

“We don’t really need to expand it,” he said. “But we’d like to be able to at least maintain it. The fact is the need is out there.”

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