THE RECRUITMENT AND RETENTION OF COMMITTED VOLUNTEERS
by Toni and Ed Eames

Moments before our Sharp talking calculator went off, we could hear the chug, chug, chug of Joe's Mercedes-Benz diesel parking in front of the house. As the voice went off signaling it was 10 a.m. the doorbell rang, as it did almost every Thursday morning, heralding the arrival of Joe, who had been reading for us during the last five years. This retired executive formerly worked for the telephone company and took his commitment to read for us as seriously as he did his former job! Volunteers Needed

After relocating to Fresno, Calif., in 1987 from New York City, we needed to recruit a corps of volunteers to provide reading and transportation services. In New York, reading was provided by the Lighthouse on 59th Street in Manhattan. Toni had a day off from her job as a rehabilitation counselor at Kings Park Psychiatric Center on Long Island every other week to travel from our home in Queens to get access to the dog and cat magazines she loved to read. Ed traveled to the Lighthouse once a week and focused his reading on the anthropological journals he needed for his job as a professor at Baruch College in Manhattan.

Volunteer readers were recruited by the agency in blocks of two hours. The quality of the volunteer reading was mixed, varying from a retired professor who thought he was still lecturing to a class of 400 students to a young woman who constantly had to be reminded that she was reading aloud! If a reader did not show up for the scheduled session, the staff made every effort to obtain a substitute, but the quality of these sit-ins was often less satisfactory than the steadies.

Transportation was no problem, except for the time involved. From our apartment in Queens to 59th Street and Lexington Avenue took an hour, involved two subway trains and a six-block walk to the subway. Going into and out of Manhattan at rush hour had its fair share of inconveniences ranging from performers blaring their music through amplifiers on the station platforms to being jammed into overcrowded subway cars.

Shortly after moving to Fresno we began actively soliciting volunteer help for reading and transportation. What has amazed us is the loyalty of those who work with us and the degree to which they perceive their role in our lives as the equivalent of a salaried position. Recruitment

Initially we turned to established organizations as a source of help. An agency in existence for more than a decade was the Friendship Center for the Blind, created to provide services for blind and visually impaired Fresnans. Unfortunately, one of the services not seen as part of its mission was help in recruiting volunteers. Turning to organizations like the Retired Teachers Association, the Volunteer Bureau, etc., we were disappointed when re-directed to the Friendship Center. Clearly, we were on our own in this venture.

Our first foray into volunteer recruitment was placing a paid advertisement in "The Fresno Bee," the daily newspaper. After three days of running the ad, two volunteers contacted us. One came for a single session and never showed up again. The other became a long-term reader. Alicia and her husband read for us through their education at Fresno State University until their move to Salem, Ore.

Recognizing that the city-wide newspaper was not the best avenue of recruitment, we then shifted our outreach efforts to neighborhood and specialized newsletters and church and synagogue bulletins. From the upscale Villager newsletter going to residents of Fig Garden Village we recruited Joe as well as several others. Club 55 Plus was a group of seniors organized by St. Agnes Medical Center to provide activities for those over 55 and recruit volunteers as hospital greeters and aides. Not only did we join the organization, but also advertised in their newsletter. Finally, we placed announcements in bulletins and newsletters of religious congregations. The Advertisement

In all print sources we placed the same basic ad: "Blind couple seeks volunteer readers. Please call 224-0544." Stages of Recruitment

Our initial screening was by telephone. When receiving a call, we asked about experience reading out loud, their personal preferences in reading material, something of their work history and availability to read for two hours on a weekly basis. We explained that Toni has lots of dog and cat magazines, Ed has professional journals and we read a great deal of disability literature together. We also informed the caller that we had dogs and cats in residence, so if he/she were afraid of or allergic to indoor animals, things would not work out. To our amazement, Jean, a retired nurse, wanted to participate, but requested we keep our dogs on leash during the reading session, because, having been bitten in the past, she was afraid of them. For two years, Jean read for us at our home until her husband changed jobs and they left the Fresno area.

Applicants were screened on the quality of voice and their attitude toward blindness. If they seemed paternalistic or amazed that we were living on our own, we indicated there was an overwhelming response to our ad and we would call them back when needed. For those who seemed good potential candidates, we scheduled an in-home audition.

Each of us selected examples of the material we would be listening to on a regular basis for this session. One reader had a problem finding our town house, called in desperation, rescheduled her appointment and followed her husband to our house to make sure she showed up for the re-scheduled time. Hortense, born in Indonesia of Dutch parents, spoke six languages, read for us until the onset of dementia, and loved reading anthropology to Ed! She also read German to a blind student at Fresno State.

For those applicants failing the audition, the same approach was used as in screening telephone inquiries. There had been an overwhelming response and we would keep them in a reserve pool of potential readers. For those we felt would be good recruits to our reading cadre, a two-hour weekly appointment was set up.

Since Fresno is what we would consider a sprawling suburban-style city, parking near our home is not a problem and big city traffic congestion is virtually non-existent. A volunteer can reach our home in 15 or 20 minutes at most.

As equal opportunity volunteer recruiters, we met with a challenging situation. We received a call from another retired nurse who said she loved reading aloud, but had lost much of her hearing. Norma, a widow, had been married to a petroleum engineer and lived all over the world, including the Middle East, South America and England. Her children had gone to private boarding school in Europe as she and her husband relocated from one residential area to another based on his job demands. As Norma continued reading for us during an eight-year stint, her hearing diminished to virtual deafness, forcing us to communicate with her through the telephone relay system and e-mail. Since it became impossible to communicate during a reading session, we selected books rather than magazine articles or mail for our reading sessions. When Toni had breast cancer surgery six years ago, Norma, re-employing her nursing skills, volunteered to come by twice a day to measure the fluid in the drains, part of Toni's post-surgical procedure. At the age of 86, Norma left Fresno to move into an assistive living community in Oregon near her son.

Mary Jo, a neighbor living around the corner, cleaned house for a blind friend. When she heard we were looking for readers, she said her mother Betty, an avid reader, would love the job. This was a perfect fit! Several years after starting this relationship, Betty was going off to visit family in Idaho, and suggested her grandson Paul, then 12, would be a great substitute. Extremely skeptical, we invited Paul over for a trial run. This child prodigy was amazing! He could handle any print material we threw at him! When Betty returned from her visit, Paul continued taking the short walk to our house whenever needed. In many ways he became a niche reader. Whenever we purchased a new electronic device, like an answering machine or cell phone, it was Paul who checked out the instructions and taught us how to use the new device.

Paul was our youngest reader and his grandmother Betty was among our oldest. Most of our current readers are retired, female and in their 70s and 80s.

Of the 25 hours of weekly reading we currently enjoy, Lanie accounts for two-thirds. Like everyone else, she began reading in weekly two-hour sessions. A recent widow and former community theater performer, reading for herself and aloud was her passion. With a great deal of free time on her hands, she offered to read on a daily basis, and two-hour reading stints extended to three hours and beyond! Mail and Bills

An issue all of us have who depend on readers, whether volunteer or paid, is privacy concerning the payment of bills and the reading of personal mail. We are fairly open individuals and don't feel threatened by others knowing something of our personal and financial circumstances. However, we do not go over mail with every reader and will only pay bills with a select few.

When the bills come in, we set them aside until a reader comes in who we believe can read the bill correctly and make out a check or fill in our credit card number. All checks sent out are brailled and signed by Toni, so they can be reconciled with our bank statements. As Toni has frequently said, "Not all sighted folks are equal!"

Over the years, mail has become less of a problem as we have entered the age of e-mail. Much of our private correspondence is now done online and most of our postal mail consists of ads and magazines! Reciprocity and Commitment

Recruiting readers is only the first step. Keeping them coming back and enjoying the experience becomes the basis for establishing long-term relationships. Every attempt is made to have our readers feel welcome in our home. Coffee is always available and our cats and dogs go out of their way to interact with these welcome guests.

At least a part of each reading session is set aside for socializing and catching up on the lives of our weekly visitors. We ask about their grandchildren, the Elderhostel they recently attended and the activities of their pets. They learn much about us not only by the material we read, but also through our travels and discussion of advocacy efforts. All of our readers on e-mail receive copies of our monthly updates, holiday letters and published articles. When our book "Partners in Independence: A Success Story of Dogs and the Disabled" appeared, each reader was given a signed and inscribed copy.

Several years ago we decided to provide a group thank-you to our devoted corps of volunteers. New Wrinkles is a popular vaudeville/cabaret form of entertainment put on by Fresnans 55 or older. Many are former professional comedy, dance and music entertainers and the three-week-long spring performance schedule is always sold out. Knowing the director, we have been purchasing 30 seats for a weekend matinee performance and combining that with lunch at a Chinese restaurant. Not only does this give us the chance to say thank you in a public setting, it permits our volunteers to meet each other.

Commitment to the job is demonstrated by their punctuality, willingness to make up reading time if they are sick or going away on vacation, or re-schedule if the usual appointment time gets taken up with medical appointments or meetings. It is further brought home by their disappointment at having to cancel a session when necessary. When Joe, the retired telephone executive, was diagnosed with terminal cancer, we stayed in touch and guaranteed him that his slot on Thursday at 10 was still open for him. When we spoke with his wife after Joe's death, she said one of the things that kept him going was the desire to come back to read to Ed.

Since volunteer readers are an integral part of our lives, we go through periods of ebb and flow. New ones enter our lives, old ones leave. Some move away, some become too ill to continue and some can no longer drive. Drivers

In deciding to rent our Fresno townhouse, availability of public transportation was a major factor. Three bus stops are within a four-block radius and the buses going to places we most frequently visit stop at these locations. One route stops at Fresno State, Fresno City College, two of the major malls and the downtown area. For a while we were dependent on these buses, supplementing them with taxis when needing to make medical appointments. However, weekly grocery shopping trips required another approach, namely the recruitment of volunteer drivers!

Shortly after moving, we were guest speakers at the North Fresno Lions Club and mentioned the need for volunteer drivers. By the end of the meeting the shopping niche was filled. One result of that early relationship led to Ed joining the club, where he is now second vice president. Currently, two fellow Lions Club members volunteer as drivers willing to take Ed shopping and drive both of us to medical and other appointments.

As inveterate theater-goers, we have developed an arrangement with friends in which we purchase their tickets to a show in return for chauffeuring service. These arrangements cross the line between completely volunteer driving and paid services, but it certainly is less expensive than taxis and provides us with a sighted describer of the performance. Other Forms of Volunteer Support

As computer incompetents, it has been important to develop a volunteer computer support system. Dave, a blind psychology professor at Fresno State with the same configuration of computer equipment and screen reader, but with a quantum leap of knowledge ahead of us, has been willing to help whenever we have problems. He has also been involved in upgrading our system whenever we have taken that step into the abyss!

Another friend, Howard, is our electronics maven. He helps rehabilitate those APH machines, talking pedometers, etc. He loves a cup of coffee and we always make sure we have plenty when he comes to do his chores for us. Another Source of Reciprocity

Our volunteers give to us without any notion of reciprocity. However, there are built-in reciprocal relationships based on our volunteer efforts in the community. We have been in the newspaper, on radio and on television several times a year concerning disability and general community issues. As one volunteer noted, she didn't have to keep in touch by phone to find out what we were up to; all she had to do was read the newspaper or watch television. In some ways, our volunteer activities validate those of our readers, drivers and other helpers.

Many of our volunteers are truly interested in our lives and community activities. Whenever we travel abroad, we share our diaries with these caring folks and make sure a memento from some far-off place is given on our return.

Since Fresno is the fruit basket of our country, volunteers will frequently bring grapefruit, oranges, tangerines, peaches and nuts in season. Usually, more is brought into the house than the two of us can consume, so we re-distribute the produce by passing it on to those volunteers who do not have fruit and nut trees in their backyards!

Conclusion

The issues of independence, mutual dependence and total dependence on others have been themes permeating many aspects of our lives, thoughts and values. Like most other people, our views on these fundamental elements of blindness have changed over time. A constant theme, however, has been the need to rely, at least in part, on help provided by others who are sighted.

Within this world of needed help, we have tried to develop an approach that is mutually beneficial to us and to those who provide support. Readers, drivers and other volunteers who have been part of our lives for long periods of time must derive some benefit from this relationship. Our goal is to develop patterns of interaction that can be perceived by these sighted individuals as worthwhile. They must not only be willing to, but want to, come back to read, drive, and help in other ways.

Toni and Ed Eames can be contacted at 3376 North Wishon, Fresno, CA 93704-4832; phone (559) 224-0544; e-mail [email protected]


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