By Mary Wiggin, Professional Storyteller & Carefor Volunteer
After I retired early in 2015, I began to look for a new volunteer challenge to complement the involvement I already had with the Great Canadian Theatre Company and Ottawa StoryTellers.
For over 30 years I worked in non-profit adult literacy organizations, first as a teacher and then for two decades as an administrator organizing and coordinating board meetings, workshops, projects and community events. By 2015 I knew that I needed a change and wanted to do something quite different in retirement. I yearned to get back to working directly with people and I was drawn to the idea of doing something with seniors.
For several months, I searched online, not quite certain what shape that idea would take. Quite by chance, I stumbled upon the Carefor website one day. As I read about the different services they offered, I was intrigued to learn that a day program for adults with dementia was offered on Carling Avenue not far from where I lived.
By this time, I had contacted several organizations responding to requests for volunteers, with mixed success. Some groups took weeks to respond or never contacted me at all. But still feeling drawn to working with seniors, I took a chance and sent an email to the Carefor contact person. I was delighted to receive a response almost immediately and was then referred to Roma Antonello-Harris to find out more about the Carling Adult Day Program. During our phone chat, Roma invited me to come to the program for a tour and I gladly accepted.
As soon as Roma greeted me and began to introduce staff, volunteers and club members I felt the warmth and camaraderie of the program. The centre was bright and cheerful and welcoming. And of great significance to me was the fact that every volunteer I met had been with the program for years. I had managed volunteers and knew that good people only stay in programs that offer them respect, interesting work and a measure of goodwill and fun.
I began volunteering on Fridays starting in the middle of May and only lasted two weeks before I fell while out walking and broke my right wrist quite badly. Surgery was required and I did not return to the day program until well into August. I was welcomed back with open arms and I have been there ever since. Well, until the beginning of March 2020, that is, when Covid-19 changed everything.
It has been almost nine months since club members, staff and volunteers have been able to gather to enjoy our usual activities–Scrabble games, art work, chair exercises and afternoons of music and dancing with visiting performers. What a loss for all of us. But the Carefor staff quickly rallied and began to offer a variety of services on Zoom and by conference call. And for anyone uncomfortable with those options, there are weekly individual calls from staff to maintain that all important contact with members and their families.
I have been a storyteller for almost 20 years and have performed in a wide variety of community settings including programs for seniors. During the pandemic I have been delighted to use that skill to entertain audiences young and old with tales that take them out of this world and into lands where animals can talk to one another and the heroine always outwits the nasty giant. I never imagined I would be telling stories on Zoom and by conference call but that’s just what’s happening and thank goodness for those technologies.
The Carling Day Program is a wonderful gathering place for seniors with dementia and the members of Let’s Get Together. The staff and volunteers work hard to ensure that everyone is treated with respect and has the best day possible each time they attend. When people ask me why I would want to volunteer in such a setting the first thing I tell them is that I laugh more on Fridays than any other day of the week. Club members, volunteers and staff alike find joy in simple acts of kindness or sharing a cup of coffee and a muffin while reminiscing about cherished childhood memories. The atmosphere is supportive and relaxed and helps people to feel loved and to realize that they matter in this world. And while all of that is going on, family members have a few precious hours to themselves to run errands, catch up on laundry or maybe even spend a little time reading a book or going for a walk.
Volunteering matters as it affects the quality of life for everyone in our community. I like to think that I have done some good as a volunteer but I know that I get more out of it than I can ever hope to give back. And because I am a storyteller, I think this wee tale says it all when it comes to each of us doing our part.
One day Elephant came upon Hummingbird who was lying flat on her back on the ground. The tiny bird’s feet were raised up into the air.
“What on earth are you doing, Hummingbird?” asked Elephant.
“Well, I have heard that the sky might fall today, said Hummingbird. “If that should happen, Elephant, I am ready to play my part in holding it up.”
Elephant burst out laughing and he laughed and laughed and mocked the little bird.
“Do you really think those little feet could hold up the sky?”
“No, not alone,” admitted Hummingbird. “But each of us must do what we can. And this is what I can do.”