By Nathan Lamb
Danielle Toppi became a volunteer because she wanted to make a difference. But she also ended up making a good friend, while helping the holiday assistance efforts at Somerville-Cambridge Elder Services (SCES).
It was late November of 2013, and Toppi was calling Meals-on-Wheels clients to confirm if they’d be home on Thanksgiving and would want a special dinner. Toppi made dozens of calls that day, and one lasting connection.
“I got in touch with this woman named Ruby who lived by herself in Somerville and we just started talking,” said Toppi. “She talked about her three sons and how they had all passed away, and I asked if she was interested in having a volunteer come to visit her.”
Ruby was referred to New Friend, an SCES program where caring volunteers provide ongoing companionship for isolated older adults. Toppi wasn’t involved with New Friend at the time, but coincidentally inquired about helping the program the same day Ruby’s request was processed.
“It was a God-being-awesome kind of thing,” said Toppi. “I remembered talking to Ruby and knew if I was going to help New Friend, I wanted it to be with her.”
“A couple of weeks later, we celebrated her 91st birthday,” added Toppi.
The holidays are a busy time at SCES, which reaches more than 1,000 older adults in Somerville and Cambridge with special relief efforts each year, according to SCES Volunteer Programs Manager Marie Mazzeo. She said contributions from caring volunteers such as Toppi are essential on several different levels.
“On one level they help us avoid wastage with the meals program, by calling to see if they want the holiday meal,” said Mazzeo. “But the biggest value is that through their efforts we’re sometimes able to provide additional support for people, to help fill a need that we otherwise wouldn’t have known about.”
Many Hands for Light Work
SCES has a roster of more than 400 volunteers, who contribute throughout the year. But Mazzeo explained that the holiday season creates some unique needs where their help is indispensable.
“Volunteers for any program are priceless, but this is especially true with our nutrition programs, where they do most of the hands-on work,” said Mazzeo. “If it wasn’t for volunteers, those programs wouldn’t exist.”
One example is the Brown Bag grocery supplement program, where volunteers convert bulk donations from the Greater Boston Food Bank into care packages for nearly 500 eligible households. While it’s a year-round effort, the program traditionally provides a little something extra for Thanksgiving, such as poultry, cranberry and squash. Brown Bag volunteers literally handle tons of food during even the slowest month and, that makes it an all-hands-deck situation for the November distribution, explained SCES Meals Program Director Deb McLean.
Volunteers also play a special role in delivering a hot meal on Thanksgiving, stepping up so that the regular drivers can have the day off.
Guillermo Gonzalez started at SCES as a Meals-on-Wheels driver in 2010. Though he’s since been promoted to case management, Gonzalez still volunteers to do a route every Thanksgiving. He said delivering the meal is important, but he also likes to confirm the well-being of the people on his route.
“In my second year of making deliveries, I had this one client where I learned his wife had passed away the week before,” said Gonzalez. “He was depressed and I spent 15 minutes chatting with him, encouraging him to go forward.”
“Before I left he thanked me for paying attention, for listening to him and making his day a little better,” added Gonzalez.
Depression is a common problem during the holidays, and Mazzeo said volunteers do important work by helping to break through the isolation.
“In many cases these programs mean much more than just the material support that’s provided,” she said.
Different Ways of Giving
Volunteers facilitate another special delivery in December, by assembling care packages for the SCES Holiday Bag program.
Combining sweets, fresh produce and other snackables, the Holiday Bags are decorated by local school children and delivered to all Meals-on-Wheels clients in the last weeks of December. McLean said the bags are meant to provide holiday cheer for clients, especially those that might be lonely.
“It should be a joyful time of year,” said McLean. “It’s usually the time people spend with their families. For those who don’t have families, we want to remember them and hope that at least this will brighten their day during this time of the year.”
“Sometimes we even get cards thanking us,” added McLean. “It’s really nice.”
A combination of volunteerism and donations also allows SCES to provide food for pets in need. The SeniorPet program, which helps older adults defray burdens of pet ownership, coordinates the deliveries and Mazzeo said donations help ensure that pets of all shapes and sizes receive food.
In general, Mazzeo said monetary donations are welcome, but the most acute need is for volunteers that fill vital and specific roles for SCES clients. She listed the medical escort program as one example.
“We can always use more help, but we really have a need there, mostly because doctor appointments are during the day and it’s harder to find people who can make that work for their schedule,” she said.
Scheduling hasn’t been an issue for Toppi and Ruby, who still visit on a weekly basis. Toppi said there was an ice-breaking period, but they’ve since become good friends.
“At first she thought we’d have nothing in common, but now it’s like family,” said Toppi. “We mostly just talk, like any friends would do.”
Ruby added that she really enjoys Toppi’s company.
“I feel very lucky,” said Ruby. “I have my best friend right here.”
For more information about volunteer programs at SCES, visit the “Volunteer Opportunities” page at eldercare.org or call 617-628-2601 ext. 3051 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.