At first, the two men didn’t quite know what to say to one another. The situation was a little uncomfortable—after all, they were essentially strangers.
But after a few quiet minutes, Bill Harris, a recent retiree, found a topic that would break the ice with the 89-year-old man whose home he visited as part of Wilshire Health and Community Services’ Caring Callers Program.
“It turned out he was a retired screenwriter from the Los Angeles area,” Harris said. “And I’m a huge movie buff.”
Just like that, a friendship formed. In weekly visits that followed, the men bonded and shared stories from their lives. They went out to lunch, caught a new flick every now and then, and bantered about sports. Quickly, Harris started seeing more spunk from his new pal, who was fresh out of a harrowing brain surgery when they met.
“As time went on I noticed a dramatic difference with him, in his overall enthusiasm, alertness, and sense of humor,” Harris said. “It’s turned out to be a very, very cool friendship.”
Harris’ volunteer experience is just one example of the dozens of relationships cultivated by Wilshire Health and Community Services. An 8-year-old program, Caring Callers’ mission is to pair seniors seeking companionship with volunteers eager to provide it. The resulting connections work like magic for the seniors of SLO County who are socially isolated, said Kelly Donohue, a public relations specialist for Wilshire Health and Community Services.
- PHOTO COURTESY OF KELLY DONOHUE
- SPECIAL FRIENDSHIP: Cal Poly student Jaymi Boynton (right) exchanges a laugh with Lorraine Bailey (left), a client with Wilshire Health and Community Services. The two met through the Caring Callers Program, which connects volunteers with homebound seniors seeking companionship.
“There are a tremendous number of older adults in our community, some of whom don’t have family or friends here—or they do, but they go into assisted living and they naturally become socially isolated,” Donohue said. “Their mental health and physical health are dramatically impacted by how much social interaction they have.”
Caring Callers exists to connect those seniors back to the community. The way it works is, first, Wilshire receives a Caring Caller request from a senior. Then, Wilshire staff meets the senior to get a sense of personality, energy, and interests. Finally, they match the client with a compatible volunteer.
“We do the best we can to make sure they have something in common or their personalities might be a good fit. We want to set them up for success,” Donohue said.
Meetups occur weekly or every other week for a set period of time. For some volunteers, that’s one year. For other volunteers, like a Cal Poly or Cuesta College student, it’s only an academic quarter. Sometimes, the relationship is so fruitful it’s maintained well beyond what’s expected. However long the time period, the visits make a huge difference, Donohue said.
What the volunteer and client do together completely depends on the client and the dynamic of the friendship. If a senior is homebound, a visit may entail a card game or simple conversation. For a more active senior, the duo may go on a ritualistic outing, like a weekly trip to the thrift store.
Arroyo Grande retiree Jack Rhodes connected with his client, a 98-year-old Grover Beach resident, over a passion for woodworking.
“He was a real avid woodworker,” Rhodes said. “And he had a shop with all the machines. A big part of what we did was spending time in his shop. We made a few things. Other times we’d just sit and converse. He led a long interesting life, so it was just rewarding for me.”
While the Cal Poly student community is almost always embroiled in some conflict with the permanent SLO city community, Donohue said you wouldn’t know it when observing the numerous Cal Poly and Cuesta College students who participate in the Caring Callers program.
“We have quite a few students for what I would imagine,” Donohue said. “I think a lot of people have this thought that Cal Poly or Cuesta students don’t volunteer.”
Donohue said the successful bonds forged between the student volunteers and seniors inspired Wilshire to conduct more volunteer outreach to the campuses.
“We find that our clients go, ‘I hear so much about the Cal Poly students in the news, or just millennials in general, and I started to feel I lost a little faith, but I also didn’t have a lot of one-on-one connection with that community,’” Donohue said. “So they felt re-inspired that the next generation is a great generation.”
Jaymi Boynton and Lorraine Bailey embody that cross-generational connection SLO so badly needs. Meeting through Caring Callers last year, Boynton, a student at Cal Poly, found the equivalent of a new family member in Bailey. And in Boynton, Bailey got a youthful companion.
BECOME A CARING CALLER …: • 71,801 SLO County residents are 60 or older.
• 19 percent are living alone.
• 15 percent are geographically isolated.
Wilshire Community Services thinks you can make a difference in their lives. For more information, go to caringcallersslo.org or call 547-7025, Ext. 17.
“It’s been huge for [Bailey’s] spirit, being able to be uplifted, feel connected and engaged,” Donohue said. “It shows that the end of life doesn’t have to be so isolated and dreary. It can be meaningful.”
Caring Callers doesn’t just uplift the client—each volunteer who spoke with New Times said the experience was equally fulfilling for them.
“It’s cliché but it’s true: The volunteer gets at least as much out of the program as the clients do,” Rhodes said. “It’s very rewarding, interesting, and meaningful. You get a sense that you’re doing something important and worthwhile with your time. I had some interesting jobs in my work life, but honestly this work has been more satisfying than any paid job that I’ve ever had.”
While Wilshire Health and Community Services has a dedicated volunteer base, Donohue emphasized that the program receives many more requests for Caring Callers than the number of available volunteers.
“Many more people should do this because it is very gratifying and the need is huge,” Rhodes said.
Staff Writer Peter Johnson can be reached at email@example.com.