Volunteers in Action helps Hood River Valley seniors

By Drew Myron

Mary and Dotty singing
Mary Mauroni’s face lights up when she sings. In her younger years, Mary was a music teacher and choir director.

At 93, Mary Mauroni can barely see, hardly hear and spends most of her time sleeping. But when Dotty Nelson starts to sing, Mary’s face brightens and the two join together in song.

For one hour each week, the ravages of age—blindness, deafness and dementia—are briefly lifted, and Mary is returned to her previous self: music teacher at Parkdale Elementary School, director of the Sweet Adelines, choir director at St. Mary’s Catholic Church and a cultural leader of the community.

Mary and Dotty have been matched through Volunteers In Action, a free service of Providence Hood River Memorial Hospital. The program pairs senior citizens and people living with chronic health conditions with local volunteers who provide neighborly support through friendly visits, light meal preparation, transportation to appointments, light housekeeping and other services.

The program aims to help people maintain independence through compassionate relationships.

People are lonely, says Britta Willson, VIA’s program coordinator. Sometimes the volunteer is the only person they see all week.

“We’re seeing an increase in people wanting companionship,” she says, “whether that’s going on a walk or playing cards, or someone who will check in with them on a regular basis.”

Clients are often referred to the program by social workers or from family, friends or neighbors. Acceptance into the program is based on an application and home assessment, and then the client is matched with a volunteer.

“Through our work, we know people, care for them and ease their way,” says Britta, who notes those receiving care through VIA are typically adults living with chronic health conditions or short-term medical vulnerability. “Our goal is to provide social and practical support, which empowers care receivers to pursue wellness on their own terms. We are an important link in a chain of support for vulnerable and isolated people in our community.”

The program serves 100 people in Hood River County, with 30 clients receiving visits on a regular basis. About 15 to 20 volunteers are labeled “really active” and see clients on a regular basis, she says.

Volunteers are always needed. Families, businesses and church groups are encouraged to take part. Volunteers must be at least 18 years old, complete an application and pass a background check prior to placement. VIA provides free training. Though most volunteers visit their match on a weekly basis, there are no required time commitments.

“It’s what you can do, when you can do it,” Britta says.

Dotty, 72, has lived in the Hood River Valley for more than 40 years and has been a VIA volunteer since 2005. As a retired physical therapist working in home health care, she helped her patients recover from surgeries and strokes.

“I loved my job so much and going to visit people in their homes,” she says. “I like the one-to-one connection. Now, as a volunteer, I can just chat on. This is perfect for me. Volunteering keeps you young.”

Mary and Dotty
As part of Volunteers In Action, Dotty Nelson has served as friendly visitor to the elderly and frail in the Hood River Valley for nearly 15 years.

Mary isn’t Dotty’s first match. She previously helped an elderly woman with household chores, and visited with a gentleman and prepared his lunch. But Mary is closest to her heart. The two are longtime friends who met in 1981 when Mary was director of the Sweet Adelines, now known as Harmony of the Gorge. Dotty is a member of the choir.

The VIA match was unintentional and now bittersweet.

“In a way, it’s sad to see her this way,” Dotty says. “I just love her. She’s like a second mother to me.”

Volunteers assist in people’s homes and can help with a variety of daily errands—transportation to appointments, grocery shopping, friendly home visits for companionship, light housekeeping, meal preparation, and minor home repairs and yard work.

“This program has been good for us,” says Lindsey Mittendorf, 29, Mary’s granddaughter and full-time caregiver.

Dotty’s weekly visits allow Lindsey to take a short break from around-the-clock caregiving. She can dash to the post office, tend to the garden or just enjoy a moment alone.

“It’s nice to have a break for an hour,” she says. “We are very, very, thankful for Dotty.”

A lifelong soprano, Mary now strains to hit the high notes, but that doesn’t deter the duo.

Sitting close and holding hands, Mary and Dotty reach into the recesses of the mind to share words that still ring true: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound …”

For more information or to volunteer, contact Britta Willson, program coordinator for Volunteers in Action at 541-387-6404, or email Brittany.willson@providence.org.