For about 45 years, the Retired Seniors Volunteer Program, or RSVP, provided opportunities for seniors in Rutland and Addison counties to help communities in meaningful ways. The appearance of COVID-19, which resulted in Vermont declaring a state of emergency in March changed — but did not stop — that mission.
Alix O’Meara, executive director of RSVP, the Volunteer Center, the Green Mountain Foster Grandparent Program and One-2-One, said like for many Vermonters, the changes came in March when Gov. Phil Scott, with the guidance of the Vermont Department of Health. Organizations began shutting down services. O’Meara said the One-2-One program continued because the service provided rides to essential appointments, such as dialysis or chemotherapy.
In the spring, when the spread of the novel coronavirus and COVID had slowed and Vermont began to reopen, staff at RSVP and the other agencies began to talk about what they could offer to a group of volunteers whose ages made them more vulnerable to COVID.
O’Meara said many volunteers find their volunteer work helps them feel useful and connected.
“Some seniors are isolated to begin with so something like this happens and they’re further isolated. We really wanted to continue to provide them with opportunities to support the community in ways that they were previously,” she said.
Maryesa White, Rutland County program coordinator, said there have been some volunteers who have largely continued to provide services over the last few months. For instance, some have gone “shopping” at local food shelves for clients with less mobility and delivered the items to a client’s home.
But O’Meara said some creativity was needed to find ways volunteers could pitch in, especially while trying to keep them contributing from home. She said the staff noticed a lot of people who wanted to help were also crafty, so they were asked to do some sewing and make the facial masks people are wearing to prevent the spread of virus.
White said almost 4,000 masks had been made by volunteers through September. She said volunteers in Addison County also are making masks.
Operation Doll is another example of how RSVP found new ways to accomplish their goals. This will be the 20th year for the program, in which new and refurbished items are prepared by volunteers and given to social service agencies to be given to families in need.
Many of the volunteers have worked on items together at the church where they are given away on a specific date in a party-like atmosphere with food and multiple volunteers helping the agencies pick up the items that number more than 10,000.
This year, the giveaway is next week and will be handled as a drive-through pick-up run by RSVP staff and a small number of volunteers. O’Meara said Operation Doll volunteers prepare items at home.
Throughout the year, there are have been volunteer activities such as reading to school children, but that has been a challenge since September. O’Meara said school administrators have not been able to find time for the volunteer readers while the pandemic. Some volunteers are willing to submit videos of themselves reading but others aren’t so “tech-savvy,” O’Meara said.
White said many volunteers are talking with each other or the agencies they serve as another way of maintaining contact. Many of them are more comfortable using the phone than using methods like texting or video-conferencing, but the phone still provides an effective way of staying in touch during a time when face-to-face contact is a challenge.
O’Meara said one advantage the RSVP agencies have is that they are part of the Community Care Network, which gives them greater reach and research.
But RSVP staff knows it is providing more than volunteer opportunities. O’Meara said there was a recent drive-through recognition event for volunteers.
“One of the volunteers as they were coming through to receive their recognition items said she was thrilled to be doing things again and when this first happened in March and the schools all closed, she just sat down on her couch and cried. That’s her contact, the thing that gives purpose to her life. She missed the children and the classroom,” she said.