Always invaluable, volunteers have been especially so this year

photo by: Contributed

Dr. Ed Rosales and his daughter, Sonia Jordan, Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health informatics director, volunteer at the March 17 COVID vaccine clinic at the Douglas County Fairgrounds.

Every April, the Senior Resource Center reaches out to its volunteers to recognize National Volunteer Month and thank them for their service. Like many critical social services agencies in the community, the extended reach of the SRC across Douglas County has always relied on the hundreds of volunteers who give their time.

As with so many things, COVID-19 has changed the landscape of volunteerism, and yet so many people from all walks of life continue to extend a hand to those in need. Volunteers have shown themselves more valuable than gold in moving the community through life with COVID-19.

From day one, Senior Wheels drivers, both paid and volunteer, stepped up to ensure that those who needed access to vital medical care had transportation to their appointments in the three communities where the group has dedicated programs. The volume of rides was quickly reduced, but the drivers forged ahead to ensure that those with ongoing treatments had transportation. With seven paid drivers and 10 volunteer drivers, Senior Wheels services have been a critical constant in the moving target of pandemic life, including transportation not only for medical appointments, but also for grocery deliveries and vaccine clinics.

Medicare open enrollment in a whole new way

SRC began planning last fall for the challenge of providing counseling to seniors with Medicare Part D drug plan during the annual open enrollment period, even as the building was closed to the public due to a peak of COVID cases. Many longtime volunteers who had been providing open enrollment counseling were apprehensive.

Evan Jorn, a veteran counselor for Senior Insurance Counseling for Kansas, said, “Initially I thought I might not be able to help. Once the plans were in place to do all the (appointments) from home using my own computer equipment and phone, I was happy to use that method.”

With much planning and teamwork, the Health and Human Services team along with 30 state-certified counselors, many of whom are seniors themselves, embarked on providing this critical service in a whole new way. To ensure safety, a system of phone and Zoom consultations was implemented, reserving a few COVID-safe appointments for seniors who preferred to meet face to face. Through the six weeks of open enrollment, 807 seniors were served, with 46% of appointments by phone, 31% via Zoom and only 23% in person.

This was a major shift in serving a mass audience, but in many ways it was one of the most successful. According to Jorn, the flexibility and willingness to provide appointments in a variety of ways have changed the process for the better.

“I am especially thankful for those who were willing to do in-person counseling,” he said, “but there are many reasons that this new method was better for all involved. Bad weather is no longer an issue. Bitter cold, slick roads … no problem.”

The contributions of AmeriCorps member Nancy Wiebe directly affected the success of the program. While new to SRC, Wiebe jumped in, developing tools to ensure that each volunteer counselor was equipped with core information before making initial calls to set appointments. She pivoted to use the same skills to assist seniors registering for the COVID-19 vaccine interest form and scheduling appointments when eligible.

The SRC staff and 15 volunteers helped answer thousands of calls from seniors who lacked internet access to assist them in getting registered and responding to notifications about vaccine appointments. Many of these calls are now being handled by the COVID-19 Helpline for Douglas County (785-864-9000) that launched in early March. Seniors who have questions or who continue having issues registering for the vaccine may contact the SRC at 785-842-0543.

Opportunities to volunteer

As the process of vaccinating the whole community continues, the need for volunteers is growing. Vaccination clinics at the Douglas County Fairgrounds each week require hundreds of volunteers. Jillian Rodrigue, deputy director for Douglas County Emergency Management, said opportunities for volunteers age 18 and older are plentiful. Many seniors already volunteer for the clinics, but the need will increase as all adults become eligible for vaccination starting Monday. To register to volunteer, visit volunteerdouglascounty.org/need.

LMH Health is also working to phase in the use of volunteers at its facilities. Within the hospital, volunteers are returning to work in the gift shop, the surgical waiting area and assisting patients and visitors as wayfinders. Although LMH is not yet seeking new volunteers, you can visit lmh.org/volunteer to keep up-to-date about upcoming opportunities.

As part of COVID Unified Command, LMH Health is seeking volunteers with clinical skills to help at vaccination clinics. Many retired physicians and nurses have already been on hand to assist with both Douglas County and LMH Health vaccination clinics.

At this time, neither Douglas County nor LMH Health sites require volunteers to be vaccinated, but the need for volunteers will continue for some time. Organizations such as the Senior Resource Center and Just Food are grateful for the volunteers who stepped up even before the vaccine was available.

As we make our way into National Volunteer Month, we all can look for ways to give back to the community.

— Michelle Meier is the director of communications at the Senior Resource Center.

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