By John Simonds
“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, what are you doing for others?”
Martin Luther King
There is a cold wind blowing in off Lake Michigan as Anna prepares for her weekly chemotherapy appointment, an event that does not put a smile on her still pretty face.
Like many women over 70, she lives alone in the apartment she shared with her husband Tom. He died a few years ago of lung cancer, probably from smoking
Anna uses a cane to navigate the 12 steps that lead to the sidewalk where a volunteer driver from The Village Chicago is scheduled to arrive soon. It is still quite dark at 7:15 and there is the possibility that the snow fall will make her steps even more treacherous. She decides to wait at the top hoping the volunteer driver can assist her down the steps.
At precisely 7:30 a black late vintage Subaru Station Wagon arrives. A sprightly woman not much younger that Anna, bounds up the steps and wraps her arms around Anna, and greets her with a warm smile. Anna is feeling better already. Behind the wheel of the Subaru is Kent Wilcox, a man of gentle demeanor waiting patiently for Anna to arrive on the arm of his wife Ada.
Anna sits up front where there is more leg room, while Ada pours a cup of hot coffee from a thermos and offers it to Anna, who reported feeling bit of a chill. They traverse the three miles to hospital in less than 20 minutes, despite heavy morning commuter traffic. Kent is being solicitous of Anna’s feeling as she faces the daunting experience of a day of painful chemotherapy without family or friends to comfort her.
Once at the hospital, Ada again assists Anna and gives her another big hug before Anna fastens the belt that secures her into the wheel chair that will transport her to her destination. Kent uses his iPhone to notify Niki Fox at The Village office on North Clark Street, that the mission has been completed. The information is entered into the computer, and Kent waits for his next assignment at a nearby Starbucks.
There are 18 volunteer drivers, almost equally divided between men and women, and all are members of The Village wanting fervently to help others. They volunteer for one day a month and I am told there are roughly 75 completed rides in an average month. The Village office has a customized computer program that helps keep “the trains running on time” and Niki Fox is a highly skilled first responder serving as a yenta matching drivers with members. It’s like a fast moving on-line dating service. Niki says it works about 80 percent of the time.
This holy trinity of driver, member, coordinator works almost to perfection six days a week; this is probably why the program has grown in popularity and why it is often cited as one the primary reasons some folks renew their membership in The Village year after year.
It was not immediately obvious to me that the Volunteer Driving Program was providing members with much more than a simple ride from point A to point B. It did not occur to me at first, that it is the TLC (Tender Loving Care) that makes this program rock. It is the hug in the morning, the warm greeting at noon and the sympathetic smile at night that fuels this popular service of The Village Chicago.
What else that was not so obvious is the fact that it is two-way street. My friend and fellow board member Dick Sullivan reports that being a volunteer driver gives him a rush he seldom experienced as a highly successful engineer. He said he gets immediate gratification, something he hadn’t experienced in years.
There are many and varied reasons why retired adults would volunteer to get out of bed on god awful cold and a windy day in Chicago to drive a perfect stranger to a medical appointment. Kent and Ada offered some insight when we spoke recently. They claimed it was bred in the bone. Both were raised in families that preached the gospel of giving of oneself to helping others. Volunteering comes as naturally as breathing, they claim.
The driving program just happens to fit Kent’s proclivity for motorized vehicles. At 15 he owned a classic, bullet-nosed Studebaker, and when he was 18 he was a highly paid member of the notorious Teamster’s Union earning enough to pay half his tuition to William and Mary. Kent is shy, but he did confess to owning and driving a Porsche and a Corvette as accouterments to his career as a successful lawyer and high level Federal Government executive.
As mentioned earlier, today he drives a Subaru Station Wagon. Pop psychology tells us that people who drive Subaru tend to be sober, intelligent, practical folks that can be relied on to help others out of a jam. That is a pretty good description of Kent, or the part of him that he was willing to reveal. He has been a volunteer since he joined The Village after retiring about three years ago and he has no intention of stopping any time soon. He stays in shape doing aerobics and other exercise regimens several days a week.
The cohort that relies on the Volunteer Driver Program is expected to continue to grow for at least the next decade. It is recorded that 10,000 people in this country are turning 65 every day. About one-third will require some form of assistance to navigate daily living—walkers, canes, wheelchairs and yes, sometimes their grown children.
Emerging technologies designed to help this burgeoning cohort are coming on line, but there will still be a cry for more volunteers and the intrepid Sarah Brunner, the boss of the program, already has a strategy for meeting this need that she plans to unfold beginning in January; she plans to look beyond The Village for volunteers like the folks connected with AARP and the faculty of DePaul University, a long-time partner of The Village Chicago.
Context is always important and no less for this successful volunteer program.
It all began on Beacon Hill a little over 15 years ago. This is where The Village revolution started. If you are going to start a revolution, Beacon Hills is certainly had the historical bona fides. It was at 76 Joy Street where The Village movement began. About five years later, a small coterie of neighbors in the Lincoln Park section of Chicago started talking over the fence, and before they finished the conversation The Village Chicago was born and soon after that they hired the Steve Jobs of the nonprofit world in Chicago named Dianne Campbell, Founder and Executive Director of The Village Chicago. With dynamism, drive and innovation, Dianne built what today is perhaps the most innovative, successful Village in this country.
Today there are about 240 Villages around the country. The concept of helping retired folks to continue to live in their homes proved infectious, and like a new product from Apple, every community wanted one. From the narrow concept of helping older folks stay in their homes, The Village has broadened their mission to “helping older people to navigate the new longevity,” in other words, help people age 50 and beyond to lead vital and productive lives long after the traditional retirement age.
Recently I was informed by my partner-in-crime, Mary Jo, that I probably wanted to make myself scarce on a Sunday afternoon in October because she was hosting the Scrabble Group that afternoon. Our fellow member Hollis Hines is hosting a book event featuring Walter Isaacson’s book on Leonardo da Vinci, and Rick Stuckey is hosting a Men’s Discussion Group at the Chicago History Museum—the monthly Calendar of Events is something to behold: Monday night Banjo, Tuesday night bridge and on and on and on it goes. It is enough to make your head spin, like the Roulette Wheel I bought at the annual auction thinking we might sponsor of Las Vegas Night to raise money for The Village. The Village Chicago simply rocks.
Yet at its core it is about what Martin Luther King said, it’s about helping people. Help comes in many disguises. The Reverend Jeffery Dunn ministers to the elderly for the 5,000 member Fourth Presbyterian Church. He told me that fear of being lonely and isolated from social engagement was the greatest fear of his constituency. The Village Chicago makes certain that its members are never left to feel alone or abandoned.
In these late November nights, darkness comes early. By 3:15 it is starting to get dark and dreary. Around 5:30, Kent gets a call: Anna is ready to be picked up at the hospital. Ada fills the thermos with fresh coffee and they head for the hospital where Anna waits anxiously in lobby looking for the Subaru. It’s been a tough day made better when Ada jumps out and give her hug.
For further information please visit www.thevillagechicago.org