Local seniors find satisfaction in volunteering roles

By Kayla Overbey

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

(This story was published in the Hays Daily News on Mon., July 2, 2012, as a special story. Read it online here.)

Special to The Hays Daily News

Slowly, they file into Sternberg Museum of Natural History, some in walkers and others in wheelchairs. The room, already crowded, fills to capacity with the healthy elderly population of Hays.

They are all volunteers with two sister organizations. They gather for a monthly in-service meeting to discuss upcoming events and important dates. All have different motives for participation.

“At the time, it didn’t really mean anything to me. I didn’t know if I really wanted to (participate),” 85-year-old Doris Westhusin said. “Well, I tried it, and I got hooked.”

The program is Foster Grandparents, a volunteer organization sponsored by Fort Hays State University. Volunteers provide a grandparent figure to children in schools, and after-school and summer programs. They are loved ones and tutors to children with whom they interact.

After retirement and volunteering in schools, Westhusin was invited to work as a Foster Grandparent.

“I’ve been there now 14 years,” Westhusin said. “Even to this day, I have kids come back and tell me, ‘If it wasn’t for you, Grandma, I wouldn’t have done as well.’ ”

By participating, she provides help to struggling students. Westhusin has watched children grow, progress through classes and graduate.

“We just went through high school graduation, and the majority of those kids were in preschool when I was there — and they still remember me. That’s such a satisfaction,” Westhusin said. “I’m ‘Grandma’ to them. And you go through the line to congratulate them and it’s, ‘Well, Grandma, it’s so good to see you.’ I dearly love those kids.”

Instead of volunteering with children, some participants assist the elderly. They volunteer for Senior Companions, a sister program to Foster Grandparents. Volunteers provide social interaction for clients.

FHSU was the first university to sponsor the programs after President Richard Nixon in 1973 “asked Congress to expand the role of low-income older volunteers who provide person-to-person services,” according to the Senior Corps website. Senior Corps is part of the Corporation for National and Community Service.

Participants of Foster Grandparents and Senior Companions volunteer after retirement. Volunteers must be 55 or older and receive a stipend.

While many of Senior Companions’ clientele live independently, some reside in assisted-living homes. Marvin Rupp, 82, volunteers exclusively in assisted-living homes. Rupp has spent three years with the program and believes his work is beneficial.

“They feel better after I leave. I probably take some of their worries with me, but that doesn’t ever matter to me,” he said.

Rupp said helping the elderly adapt to life in an assisted-living home is one of his most important roles. Rupp said his time volunteering makes his clients’ lives more enjoyable.

“My philosophy in what I do when I see them is to make them feel better, to get them to accept being there,” he said.

For Rupp, the most rewarding part of volunteering is the companionship that develops from conversations.

“We just start to visiting, and it falls into place. I’ll bring up subjects of things that happened back in the dust storms days or the depression days,” Rupp said. “They perk up and it gives them something to reminisce and talk about.”

Senior Companions and Foster Grandparents give volunteers older than 55 have a chance to give back. Whether by teaching a child to read or driving a frail person to an appointment, participating volunteers said the experiences are fulfilling.

To become involved with Senior Companions or Foster Grandparents, fill out the online inquiry form at http://www.fhsu.edu/senior-companions/Online-Inquiry or contact Program Director Jolene Niernberger at jniernbe@fhsu.edu or by calling (785) 628-5809.