United Way: Cornerstone of a community that cares | Guest Column

Mariluz Villa   - Contributed photo
Mariluz Villa
— image credit: Contributed photo

How in the world do you explain why you live on an island accessed only by sea or air?

At a recent luncheon, an island newcomer said she moved here from a place where people didn’t help each other out. When she “got off the boat” for her new job here, people practically ran her over with offers to help. She was blown away.

People who live here care. They care about community.  And that’s how I start to explain to people why I live in this remote place. It’s all about caring.

It’s easy to care for folks who articulate their needs. But what about those who can’t walk? Can’t talk? Have no energy to ask for help? Who want to stay on the island although they cannot care for themselves?

On this island, volunteers step up to meet those needs.

Hospice of San Juan is one of those organizations that exist solely to help people in a time of truly great need. Hospice volunteers bake cookies, run errands, lend medical equipment, offer grief support, give family members a break, or just sit and be present.

I know that doesn't sound very glamorous, but even less glamorous are those who give non-designated money so that hospice volunteers can do their work: United Way, an agency that receives money from members of this caring community, grants money to organizations desperately in need of funds for basic operational expenses.

I recently attended a national meeting of geriatricians. One of the sessions I attended focused on solving organizational problems. I talked about fundraising for an all-volunteer hospice that provides free services in an isolated community.

Most hospices receive payment from Medicare, which requires a volunteer component. San Juan County has a unique situation in which Medicare-type hospice services are delivered by an agency located on the mainland, which, realistically, cannot fulfill its volunteer services requirement.

Therefore, Hospice of San Juan voluntarily helps the mainland hospice so that people who choose to remain in the middle of the Salish Sea at the end of their life actually receive the full spectrum of needed services, all without getting a cut of the mainland hospice’s budget.

So, my challenging organizational problem was how to fund our hospice. I completely stumped the “panel of experts” as well as audience.

What they didn’t know is that United Way gives money without strings attached to help with operation expenses of our organization: money that can be used to pay our telephone hotline bill, for the storage unit that houses the medical equipment we lend out for free, for buying more equipment that is needed by frail people living on the island.

United Way is one of very few agencies willing to give money to organizations like Hospice of San Juan to support every day expenses rather than funding specific programs—programs that cannot take place if their operational expenses are not paid. I wish there were a way to magically create resources that Hospice needs to care for people.

United Way makes wishes come true. That is why I live on an island accessed only by sea or air.

When you get off the boat, United Way cares, volunteers care, every part of this community cares, no strings attached. Welcome to the island.

— Editor’s note: Mariluz Villa, president of Hospice of San Juan board of directors, is board certified in internal and geriatric medicine, as well as in hospice and palliative care, and offers medical services on a voluntary basis where needed.


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