When Elizabeth, Katherine and Emily walked in the door at the Council on Aging in Avon, the positive energy was palpable. As the three volunteers made their way through the packed room, they were greeted warmly, in some cases by name, by the older adults in attendance. Before they put on their gloves and got to work serving lunch, the volunteers relished the chance to mingle with the seniors and chat like old friends.
Elizabeth, Katherine and Emily volunteer at the Council on Aging through CHAI Works-South, a community-based day program for adults with disabilities in Canton offered through Jewish Family & Children’s Service (JF&CS). For both CHAI Works participants and Council on Aging attendees, the partnership between the two organizations has been a match made in heaven.
A Natural Partnership
“It was an instant lovefest,” said Heidi Isler, the manager of CHAI Works-South. “Seniors sometimes feel like they don’t have enough opportunities to socialize with other people. This can also be a concern for adults with disabilities, which is what makes these two populations such a great match.”
Maryann, a guest at the Council on Aging, always enjoys chatting with Emily when she is volunteering. “Emily is very articulate and charming,” she said. “We share a December birthday. [All of the volunteers] are always so eager to help and always smiling.” Jayne Carthas, the volunteer coordinator at the Council on Aging, said that the seniors love when the CHAI Works participants serve lunch and regularly ask her when they’ll be visiting next.
The CHAI Works participants also look forward to volunteering. Bri Nichols, a program coordinator for CHAI Works who accompanied the volunteers at the Council on Aging, said, “It’s awesome to see their smiles when we’re at a volunteer site. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a frown.”
Building Skills for Paid Employment
While volunteering is obviously socially rewarding for CHAI Works participants, it also provides valuable community-integrated work experience. In addition to volunteering and participating in recreational activities in the community, participants attend lifelong learning groups ranging from social skills, job skills, self-advocacy, academic skills, health and the arts. All of the participants in CHAI Works are at least 22 years old, the age when students with disabilities age out of the public school system.
In some cases, CHAI Works participants are able to use the skills they mastered while volunteering to find paid employment. Emily works four days a week serving food at a school in Newton, and Elizabeth just got hired for an administrative role at Babson College in Wellesley. Elizabeth feels confident about starting her new position, in part because volunteering has given her good experience “interacting with people and helping them.”
“It’s not easy work,” said Heidi Isler, referring to serving food. “Volunteers are sometimes on their feet for two-and-a-half hours. They’re working the whole time.” Developing a strong work ethic and the resolve to keep plugging along while on the job was key for Elizabeth. Before securing a position at Babson, Elizabeth worked with Pathways to Employment, a sister program of CHAI Works at JF&CS, to shape the “soft,” or general, work skills she would need for any part-time employment.
John Wills, the director of employment programs, said, “Elizabeth came to us with a lot of great skills. She has an incredible personality—very friendly, very personable. Pathways worked with her to increase stamina and problem-solving skills she needed to succeed in the workforce.”
At Babson, Elizabeth will harness her outgoing personality in a position where she will regularly interact with students and visitors. Elizabeth is eager to begin her new job, saying “I can’t wait. It’s going to be awesome!”
Pride and Appreciation
After the last of the food had been served at the Council on Aging lunch, Jayne, the volunteer coordinator, surprised Elizabeth, Katherine and Emily with bags of candy as special thank-you gifts. The CHAI Works volunteers were clearly thrilled to receive the bags, not just because they were filled with treats, but because they were tokens of sincere appreciation from the Council.
“Volunteering gives the participants a sense of pride,” said Bri, the CHAI Works staff member at the Council on Aging lunch. “It’s a way for them to give back. The experience is all about upholding the dignity of the participants.”
Bri’s sentiments were echoed by Maryann, a senior at the lunch. “[The CHAI Works volunteers] are an example of how everyone can help everyone in whatever capacity they’re able. Everyone thinks it has to be big things, but little things are important too.”
Whether it was pouring a cup of coffee or just chatting for a few minutes, the power of “little things” was certainly on full display at the Council on Aging lunch.
JF&CS Day Programming and Employment Services create meaningful and fulfilling opportunities for individuals with disabilities to lead productive and integrated lives in their communities and increase their feelings of self-worth and confidence. For more information, visit us online or call 781-647-5327.
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