Bringing the community closer and helping houses continue to feel like home, the Bergen County Volunteer Center’s CHORE program connects senior citizens with volunteers to help make them feel safer.

With a team of about 55 volunteers and three vans to make it all work, the program services 1,500 unduplicated clients a year, and in the last few years has covered almost every municipality of Bergen County, according to Lynne Algrant, CEO of the Bergen County Volunteer Center. The program, which is grant-funded, offers a wide range of services to both seniors 60 years and older and also people with disabilities of any age.

“Our goal is to allow people to remain in their homes and age in place safely,” said Michele Ogden, the program manager for the CHORE program.

Its roots date back 42 years now, stemming from a federal legislation that created a division of senior services in every county. To do so, Bergen County reached out to the Volunteer Center to help develop the program. Tasks can be anything from a grab bar installation to light housekeeping and grocery shopping. They also do light electrical work, leaky faucets, helping with air conditioner unit installation and help with changing light bulbs.

“For us here, it was really about homeowners and safety and how do they get access to the kinds of repairs and other things that will keep them safe in their homes in an affordable way,” Algrant said. “At the volunteer center, it was how can we harness the power of volunteerism to do something and that’s how CHORE got started. It’s safety, it’s repairs and other chores that will keep people safe in their home that they shouldn’t or can’t do on their own and that may be very expensive on the open market.”

The program does more than help with the home; it also helps newly retired people get more involved.

“It’s dual purpose program,” said Ogden. “They’re all volunteers and it gives them a purpose. You’ve never met a group of happier guys that get together with their team every week on the same day every week. They go out and they love the friendship and helping each other, and it really serves two purposes and it’s really growing with our volunteers. We have new volunteers weekly coming to us interested in coming on board with us.”

With all projects the volunteers do, the labor is free; the only cost is for the material needed for the task. As the volunteers stop to assist with other projects they see in the home, Algrant says there’s a higher sense of comfort for the resident to know they’re not being taken advantage of. Getting volunteers to help take care of an issue is as simple as a phone call to the Volunteer Center, then the staff will work on scheduling from there.

The feedback given has been overwhelming. While some are upset about the wait time – the biggest issue the CHORE program has as they have only the three vans and an ever-growing list of clients, so the waitlist is about a month out – most are extremely grateful for the services provided.

“The thing I get out of it is when the clients call and the gratitude they express; you can just hear it in their voices,” said Jessica Leibe, program assistant for the successful aging department at the Volunteer Center. “They’re so amazed even when you make an appointment that we’re calling them back and that in of itself, the fact that they’re so happy we’re even returning their phone calls makes your heart soar. We do a lot of stuff that really helps the seniors age in place and make them feel more independent. The thing the seniors love about our guys is they will come in and do whatever they have to in order to try and fix the problem. It’s very rare they come back and say they couldn’t figure it out. The clients trust our guys; they know they’re going to come in and you’ll see 3 to 4 friendly faces and they’re going to do whatever they have to to get the job done.”

For both the volunteers, who range from ages 16 to 80 years old, and the citizens being helped, the CHORE program offers security and joy to those involved in it. But for those being helped, it offers more than security. It offers a sense of independence and growth for their future, even as they’re less able to help themselves.

“What it symbolizes for them is huge,” Algrant said. “We can’t underestimate as people grow older how scary it is about whether they can live the way they want to live and do it safely and the CHORE service does that and does it with smiling faces and lots of chatter. It’s just the cherry on top. That being able to stay in your home is invaluable, and that people are in the community and are helping people have that is overwhelming.”

There are two ways to become involved with the CHORE program. One is their Get Connected website or at http://bergenvolunteers.galaxydigital.com/need/. The biggest way they have gotten volunteers though is mostly word-of-mouth. Another way to get involved is through one of the Bergen County Volunteer Center’s programs called Redefining Retirement, where matchmakers pair recent retirees with volunteer programs.

With its work bringing the community together through assistance, this program helps senior citizens feel safe and comfortable in their home. The hard-working staff furthers that progress.

“When you run volunteer programs, people always think, ‘Oh, that’s so great! They’re free.’ But you still have to recruit them and train them and supervise them. We have to have someone answer the phone and schedule. It’s important to understand that CHORE is a professionally managed volunteer program and that’s why it is as successful as it is. It is because of the high quality way the Volunteer Center does its work and its superior staff, so one of the things that’s important for people to understand is we couldn’t have this if it weren’t for people’s philanthropy and investment in us to do this great work,” Algrant said.

What keeps the staff happy and motivated though is helping make a difference and they encourage people to continue to get the word out.

“[It’s important for people to] know that we’re here,”Leibe said. “We get so many phone calls where the clients say they’ve never heard of us. It’s important though for people to know that there is a group of people out there who want to get out there to help them and who will do everything they can and who will respond to them honestly. It may not always be what they want to hear but we pride ourselves on our honesty and telling them what we can and cannot do. We always call the office and Michele and I are more than happy to tell them yes or no and if they can’t, we’ll find them a name of someone who might be able to help. The important message is to know that we are here, and we are happy to answer any questions.”

As the program manager, Ogden concurs and is proud of all the work done with the program and for the people of Bergen County. With another goal of the program being making people feel comfortable in their homes, they’re bringing people together with their services.

“It’s so important because so often we see the elderly become almost invisible in their own community. They don’t know their neighbors and they don’t know who to trust or call, but one thing is for certain: they know they can call CHORE, and they know they’re going to get a response from the office, and they’re going to get a crew that’s vetted and is in uniform and the van is clearly marked it’s CHORE service,” she said. “They know they can reach out and trust us. It’s such a comforting program for them and that means a lot to us.”

For more information about the CHORE program, visit https://www.bergenvolunteers.org/chore-service.

By Tara DeLorenzo

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