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  • by Chris Stewart

The Art of Giving - RSVP's Spirit Never Grows Old

"I believe in it," Harry Fowler Said. "People appreciate what the volunteers do for them, and their appreciation feeds our incentive to continue doing things."

As one of almost 200 participants in the Retired Senior Volunteer Program in Carroll County, Fowler supervises the Hobby-Crafts and Woodworking Program - one of the 40 "stations" where senior retirees volunteer their time and service to help others throughout the North Country. Whether they work at Memorial Hospital, the Center of Hope, the Carroll County Nursing Home, or the Conway Meal On Wheels program or any of the dozens of other community organizations, these volunteers provide a countless number of services. And they all do this because they want to. As one RSVP'er noted: "The more you give, the more you get."

Judith Hebert, RSVP Director, explained that the program aims to offer older people - ages 60 and over - the chance to enrich their lives by service to neighbors in the community. "We now work with 40 non-profit organizations in Carroll County," Hebert noted, "in areas ranging from work in the schools as tutors, to helping with the nutrition program at the hospital to assisting with the American Red Cross Blood-Mobile Clinic." In 1980 alone, volunteers donated mare than 20,000 hours time to programs in the County, yet they still couldn't fill all the requests for help that were made. More volunteers are needed.

When requests for RSVP assistance come in, Hebert and RSVP Coordinator Carolyn Brown carefully review the application to find the right person for the job. "We're open to any non-profit organization which needs help," Hebert added. "In a way, our office serves as a clearing house; we try to match the needs of the volunteer to the organization." This isn't always easy. Some retired people, for instance, choose to pursue a different vocation once they've reached 60. "Just because a person taught school for 30 years doesn't mean that he or she will want to volunteer as a teacher," Hebert said.

Once a volunteer finds the "station" that best fits his or her preferences, RSVP woks closely with the volunteer to insure that each person is given the proper training for the job. "RSVP does not aim to displace paid employees," Hebert noted, "but if there's no money for a position, and the need for volunteers exists, we'll try to place someone."

The only other limit to the RSVP service in the community stems from its own budget. While no RSVP'er receives a salary, volunteers are covered by insurance when working and are reimbursed for mileage to and from their stations. Since these costs continue to rise faster than anticipated, RSVP - like any other non-profit organization - must make a little go a long way. With roughly half its annual budget funded by ACTION (the parent organization of the Peace Corps and VISTA), RSVP must depend on community support for the rest. Luckily, that support has been very strong over the past several years, so strong, in fact, that the Carroll County RSVP enjoys the best community support of any RSVP in the State. Through the assistance of Carroll County, the North Country Council, a variety of fund-raising events, and individual donations, the Carroll County RSVP has been able to keep its head above water.

Having strong support of the community has meant that a variety of important RSVP-staffed projects have taken root in Carroll County. Among them, the Meals and Wheels program based at the Gibson Center has proven to be one of the most far reaching. "Dozens of volunteers like Kay Ryan of Bartlett and Sally and Roland Bean have worked hard to make this program successful," Hebert pointed out. Today, in addition to providing hot, nutritious meals to people who are unable to leave their homes, Meals On Wheels offers a noontime luncheon five days a week in the Gibson Center's newly completed dining room. Together, the delivered and congregated meals reach between 60 and 80 people a day.

Like the Meals On Wheels project, the tape program for the shut-ins and the blind is another example of how RSVP volunteers contribute to helping others in Carroll County. Begun in 1971 through the efforts of Charles LaCasce of the State Division of Welfare, the program now brings music, news and information to more than two dozen people. "The brainstorm for the program came in November 1971 at the Conway Cafe," LaCasce recalled. "Ray Stineford mentioned that he was going to read the Reporter to a totally blind woman he knew. I could think of a half dozen others who might enjoy this, so I asked him to tape it." With the cooperation of the Conway Library and the help of the Conway Women's Club and various others, LaCasce managed to secure Federal funds through the State Library in Concord. This money paid for the tape decks, tapes, and high speed recording machines used in the program.

Today, the program is supervised by Polly Burnell with the able assistance of volunteers like Persis Berry, Norman Hansen, Gabriella Griswold, Grace Fowler, and others. Some volunteers - like Persis Berry -help in preparing the 60-minute tape programs of local news, stories from selected magazines like National Geographic, music, comedy shows, and occasion oral tours of area towns (a tape particularly appreciated by those who haven't seen the changes which have taken place over the years). Other participants deliver the tapes to individuals in their homes and people at the County Home. Those on the "delivery" end of the operation purposely handle only three or four deliveries in a trip so that they'll have ample time to visit as they make their rounds.

Polly Burnell, who has headed the program for the past six years, explained that her own experiences have given her a special appreciation for the tape project. Having once had cataracts herself, she know how valuable the tapes are for those who can't see. "It makes me more sympathetic now that i know what it means to them," she explained "One woman who gets the tapes says that they're just "her life."

Gabrielle Griswold, another of the RSVP volunteers in the taping program, agreed with Polly Burnell's comments. "It's a service of vital importance to people who are shut-in or who have difficulty getting out because of age, physical infirmity or geographic remoteness," she added. "Volunteering here appeals to me because the program is so useful." Like many of the other volunteers, Griswold gives her time to more than a single RSVP program. Soon, if all the arrangements can be worked out, she will share her career experience with Kennett High School students curious about pursuing a life in publishing. As the former editor and chief of The Designer and the women's editor of Country Home, Griswold spent more that 15 years in New York City's publishing industry.

Since moving to the North Country from Maryland two years ago. Olga Cox has also given freely of her time to the RSVP taping program. Her description of her feelings about this program could well apply to every other RSVP program. "It works two ways," she said. "I'm not used to not having something to do, and it's nice to know that what I"m doing helps someone else."

While Meals On Wheels and Taping programs have been around for several years, the RSVP is always seeking new ways to expand its services. Last week, volunteers began helping out at the Alpha Gallery in North Conway and this past summer Harry Fowler and Larry Paquette opened up a Hobby-Crafts and Woodworking Program in the basement of the Gibson Center. Supervisor Fowler and hie assistant Paquette have already begun a caning class - attracting half a dozen retired students - and later this spring, plan to screen in the Gibson Center's front porch. "Our basic idea is to get seniors to come to the Gibson Center and participate in hobby-crafts and woodworking projects. We'be done some home repair work for those people who can't do it themselves, framing pictures, repairing furniture and screens, but we also want to teach people the skills to do this work themselves."

Although he currently supervised the Carroll County Energy Task Force in addition to his work with the hobby-craft program, Fowler didn't become active in RSVP until three years ago, five years after retirement. "I ran an errand for my wife, who was working in an RSVP program at the Gibson Center and wound up talking with Judy Hebert and Carolyn Brown," he recalled, "and now I'm an enthusiastic volunteer. The people in the program have a great attitude; they're wonderful to work with. Their unselfishness is so evident."

In explaining the many and varied programs RSVP works with, Judy Hebert stressed how every person, no matter who they were, had something to offer. "Some of our volunteers can give a day a month to a program, and others can work each day at one, or two, or three different projects. But, there's a place for everyone who wants to help." Charley LaCasce echoed her comments: "There's a woman at the County Home who has arthritis so badly that she can barely pick up a glass, yet she volunteers her time," Another woman, Mamie Stone, who has been blind for the past 40 years, helps out by telephoning people every month to let them know about the Outreach Program's luncheon for seniors. RSVP volunteers from the Meals On Wheels program and the Taping program help Mamie, and she, in turn, contributes her time on the telephone."

Non-seniors can also assist RSVP in many ways. the taping program needs 60 tapes, the hobby-craft programs needs tools, a table saw, wood, and a person skilled in "rush" work, and the RSVP volunteer Ken Hall noted, any contribution - no matter what form it comes in - is appreciated. "I can't afford to give money to support the program, " he said, "but I can afford to give the time."

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