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RSVP – win/win for volunteers, communities

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Retired and Senior Volunteer Program workers are everywhere – passing out commodities, checking appointments at the spay/neuter clinic; “floating” and helping where they’re needed at the Flathead Cherry Festival; answering the phone and dealing with visitors at the Polson Chamber of Commerce; helping out Cheerful Heart on Tuesday’s oncology day at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center; making chili dogs and ice cream cones at Live History Days; and driving veterans to appointments. 

Sherlee Santorno, RSVP Volunteer Coordinator, has about 180 volunteers but she’d like more. The volunteers serve in 43 different areas. RSVP provides pre-service training so their volunteers know what skills they will need to complete assigned tasks. 

Volunteers receive insurance for the time they work and for quality assurance purposes background checks are done.

RSVP is a program especially for those over 55 years of age who like to volunteer. 

“It’s about the community,” Santorno said. “I just don’t want some hours put in, I care that we are touching the community.”

Think of RSVP as a large sheltering oak with its branches reaching into many areas around the Lake — the business community, animals, retired folks and rehabilitation facilities, children, the schools, museums, non-profits and community events.

Volunteers choose the position they want. For instance, at the Miracle of America Museum, Gene DeCarlo created an expanded gun display cabinet and Renee Loehr spearheaded the concessions and fountain treats at Live History Days. 

A retired corporate CEO might like to help in a business or perhaps a retired teacher might wish to explore art with seniors at an assisted living facility. 

“I’m not going to put them in a job they don’t like,” Santorno said of her volunteers. She added that she doesn’t guilt anybody into volunteering either.

Sheryl Mink has been volunteering at “Soup’s On,” but she’s an artist who loves to be around people of all ages, so friends steered her in Santorno’s direction. Now Mink works with seniors at Providence St. Joseph Extended Living, teaching watercolor painting. She also visits Polson Health and Rehabilitation Center and does art projects with their seniors too. 

“The soup kitchen or art — I go home on a high,” Mink said.

If a volunteer gets too tired doing the volunteer work, he or she can cut back their hours. Unloading commodities is a good example of how this might happen. 

“Volunteers were saying, ‘It’s too hard on my back. I can’t do it,’” Santorno said, so she called Job Corps and now they send kids to help unload. The kids and the seniors socialize with one another. Santorno even overheard a 70-year-old grandmother tell a 17-year-old to leave her boyfriend. 

The worst thing to do to a volunteer is to give them nothing to do. Volunteers should be integrated into the work environment and given a job. 

Santorno shares her office, including her computer and worktables. “This is the volunteers’ office, a place to work. If you get bored, I will find something for you to do,” she said. 


Nancy Hausermann’s story

Sometimes, volunteering can take a toll on the volunteer.

Santorno coordinates the volunteers for RSVP, but she also knows about the other programs under the Area VI Agency on Aging umbrella.

She shared the story of Nancy Hausermann, a woman who utilized many of these other services. 

Hausermann likes to spend a lot of her time raising money for other people. She’s created haunted houses, hosted bake sales, raffled objects and coordinated events, such as the Easter basket giveaway.  

At the end of each event, Hausermann would be hurting financially and emotionall with her moods going from one extreme to another —  and she gets depressed.

“I’ve suffered from a bipolar high, weeks and days, out of control working on an event,” Hausermann said. 

 By the time Hausermann met with Santorno, she was in tears.

Santorno suggested she talk to the Area VI Agency on Aging. 

“As a part of the agency, I have lots of resources, and I know where they are,” Santorno said. 

She introduced Hausermann to Samantha Walker, with options counseling. 

In two days, with an advocate to guide her through the steps and make appointments, Hausermann was re-evaluated for the SNAP program, which is the old food stamps program, signed up for commodities and received fuel assistance from the LEAP office.

“It increased her bottom line by 40 percent,” Santorno said. “Now she can go out there and fly.” 

“They were all lifesavers for me,” Hausermann said. “I can come in here and Sherlee will say, ‘Let’s do this and this and this.’ She’s here to help me and rein me in.” 

Santorno does a lot of follow up with all her volunteers. She scrutinizes whether they’re enjoying not only their job but also the hours they work. She checks to see if there are any changes or adaptations that can be made to improve the job situation and she treats people well by remembering birthdays and holding a volunteer appreciation lunch.

As added incentive for those considering volunteering, Santorno offered, “By the way, volunteers live longer.” 

To become an RSVP volunteer, contact Santorno at 406-883-7284.

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