Crystal Lake nonprofit helps seniors stay in their homes
For his first act with the Senior Care Volunteer Network, Andy Snarski signed up to give somebody a ride.
The Crystal Lake organization had been seeking drivers who could transport seniors to and from doctor appointments, health clubs and other destinations throughout McHenry County. As a recent retiree, Snarski was seeking ways to fill his time.
More than three years later, the client Snarski drove on his first day is the same woman he continues to pick up at 5:15 a.m. three times a week. They chat during their rides, occasionally go out to eat and have become "very much like friends," he said.
And she isn't the only care receiver with whom he has formed a close bond.
"It's become more than just a volunteer position," said Snarski of Crystal Lake. "There's a lot to be gained intrinsically in a person's life just to develop a relationship and be helpful to the community."
The Senior Care Volunteer Network offers free, nonmedical services that help residents ages 60 and older maintain their independence and stay in their own homes for as long as possible.
Door-to-door transportation is the nonprofit's most-used service, particularly for crucial medical appointments such as dialysis or chemotherapy, Executive Director Sarah Schrempf said. But volunteers also drive seniors to hair appointments, help them shop for groceries, make minor home repairs, and stop by their houses for a board game or cup of coffee.
They even deliver flowers or goody bags to care receivers on their birthdays -- occasionally the only gift they'll receive.
"That part lends to the quality of life more than anything else," Schrempf said. "We really do take any request (from seniors), and we do our best to try and fill it because it's important to them."
Founded in 1998 under the name Faith in Action, the organization now has more than 3,200 care receivers enrolled -- a 30 percent increase over the previous year, Schrempf said. That number is projected to continue growing along with McHenry County's rising senior population.
Not all people enrolled in the network regularly use its services, she said. Some may have needed rides to and from therapy after a short-term injury, or perhaps they rented durable medical equipment from the nonprofit's Loan Closet to help them recover after a surgery. But their names remain in the system in case they ever need help again in the future.
Some care receivers don't have a support system to drive them to crucial appointments or bring them groceries, said volunteer Debra Lindauer, who often meets with seniors when they first sign up for the program. Others don't want to burden their family members by asking for help time and time again.
"This agency fills such a need in the community," she said. "This is just an added support."
That peace of mind is what prompted longtime Cary resident Shirley Davis to enroll in the Senior Care Volunteer Network a couple years ago. At 72 years old, she can still drive around town and shovel her long driveway. But when her car is in the shop or her plumbing needs to be fixed, she's thankful to be able to request help from a volunteer.
"It took a long time for me to admit I needed help, but I did," Davis said. "It's nice to know that you have somebody to call if you need them. You don't feel like you're all alone."
Care receivers' requests are entered into a database at least three days in advance, at which point volunteers can sign up for the rides, visits or other services of their choosing.
The organization has more than 250 active volunteers, though the number of hours they serve varies based on their availability, said outreach coordinator Laura Turasky.
"You get to pick what you do and when you do it," she said. "It's flexible."
With two full-time and five part-time employees, the network relies heavily on the volunteers in order to keep serving clients at no cost, Schrempf said. Its roughly $375,000 annual budget comes from fundraisers, business sponsorships, individual donations and grants, including from the Mental Health Resource League, McHenry County and United Way.
"Our model is unique," she said. "There are a lot of moving pieces, but the uniqueness comes in the value of the volunteers' time and resources and what they can contribute."
Organization leaders hope to always be able to offer their services for free, Schrempf said, especially because many of the care receivers are low income. For some seniors, she said, saving money on public transportation by requesting a ride from a volunteer can make all the difference.
Should a client request a service that is beyond the scope of the organization's mission, such as medical assistance or landscaping, staff members will refer them to trusted local businesses or other resources that offer senior discounts.
The network also partners with local food banks to deliver boxes of nonperishable groceries to those who qualify.
"It's the village taking care of the seniors," Turasky said. "Everybody's got to kind of participate -- businesses, organizations and individuals -- and then we just tie it all together."
How you can sign up to help Senior CareVolunteers with the Senior Care Volunteer Network can choose to help fulfill whatever requests they want, whenever they want, wherever they want.
The flexibility in scheduling strengthens their volunteer base, organization officials say. But the greater the senior population in McHenry County grows, the more the nonprofit needs additional people helping to provide services.
"Not only do our services really help the seniors in our community, but it also helps teach other people, other groups, younger generations how important serving your community and giving back is," said Aly Halberstadt, volunteer program coordinator.
Here's how you can sign up:
• Call the office at (815) 455-3120 or fill out a volunteer form on the organization's website at www.scvnmchenrycounty.org/become-a-volunteer/.
• Halberstadt will contact potential volunteers directly to fill out an application.
• Background checks are conducted on all volunteers, just as they're completed on care receivers, to ensure everyone in the program is safe.
• Complete an in-person orientation with Halberstadt that includes an overview of all programs, as well as the signing of all legal paperwork for liability reasons. Halberstadt then works with future volunteers to determine what services fit them best and explain the basic guidelines of each service. For example, friendly home visits can include coffee and a game of Scrabble, but not medical care.
• Watch a video orientation online.
• From there, volunteers will be able to access an online portal listing each care receiver's request. "It gives them all the information they need for them to make an educated decision about what they're able to do and when they're able to do it," Executive Director Sarah Schrempf said.
• Halberstadt checks in with the volunteers regularly to answer questions, review guidelines and make sure they are comfortable in all situations.