Oak Bay Volunteer Services, helping with life’s changes and challenges

From phone calls with lonely seniors to help with colicky infants, volunteers do it all

  • Sep. 13, 2012 5:00 a.m.

Oak Bay resident John Hurlburt has volunteered with Oak Bay Volunteer Services for more than 25 years.

On Sept. 19, the Oak Bay Volunteer Services will host an event to mark its 35th year of serving the Oak Bay community. The celebration will include entertainment, refreshments and a chance to meet and thank the people who make the work of the agency possible.

And, according to the volunteers and clients of the agency, that work deserves the recognition.

The short version mission statement of the Oak Bay Volunteer Services reads: “To provide one-to-one outreach volunteer services to help people of all ages maintain and improve quality of life.”

The reality of the challenges involved in delivering those services belies the simplicity of the statement.

Last year Oak Bay Volunteer Services provided drivers for more than 1,600 outings by individuals who otherwise would have had no way to get to where they needed to go. The agency prepared nearly 100 tax returns for low income individuals needing help. They also did home maintenance odd jobs, worked in gardens, went for walks with clients, did home visits and made “reassurance phone calls.” Volunteers helped clients with their shopping, visited shut-ins, helped young mothers deal with difficult child rearing situations and performed a litany of other services for people who needed help.

That’s what Oak Bay Volunteer Services does; and they’ve been doing it for the past 35 years.

The client list of the organization tends to be on the shady side of 65 years of age, but they have had clients who are much younger. Joan Halvorsen, the group’s executive director, recalled one client who was six weeks old. “I suppose the client was actually the mother,” Halvorsen said. “Although we like to call that infant our youngest client on record.” The child had severe colic and the agency sent in a volunteer to help the family through the trying time.

“It was a change in their world that they weren’t prepared to handle,” said Halvorsen.

That tends to be the pattern for the clients of Oak Bay Volunteer Services as their clients are often individuals who have had profound changes in their lives. It might be a new addition to the family or, for the elderly, it could be that they begin to experience confusion or memory loss. For some, it might be a medical or emotional challenge that has taken over their lives.

For others, it might be that they have simply outlived their friends and family and find themselves alone in the world.

To meet these challenges Halvorsen has only two other staff members; office coodinator Ruth Platts and services coordinator Kelsey LeClair. The three of them manage a cadre of about 250 volunteers, who, in turn, provide services to nearly 600 clients.

“Each of our clients is unique,” said Halvorsen. “So we individualize the service to meet the specific needs of each client.”

The agency is careful, however, not to provide services that could be provided by paid individuals. “For example, we give rides where clients can’t, for some reason, use a taxi or public transportation,” said Halvorsen.

The agency is also careful not to overstep its mandate. They don’t provide medical home care, even if a volunteer with the requisite skills is available. “That isn’t the business we’re in, so we stay away from being something we were never intended to be,” said Halvorsen. “If we see a need outside our role, though, we’ll make sure that the proper resources and agencies are involved.”

To that end, Oak Bay Volunteer Services has developed and maintains a series of partnerships with a long list of social agencies and other service providers.

The real strength of Oak Bay Volunteer Services is the dedication of the volunteers.

Take John Hurlburt for example. John has volunteered with the agency for more than 25 years and says that the happiest times of his life have involved helping others. He’s done a host of jobs for Oak Bay Volunteer Services; jobs that have included everything from driving clients to medical appointments to stuffing thousands of envelopes. Still, his favourite activity has been providing home visits for clients.

“It’s nice to help someone who’s lonely,” said Hurlburt. “Some people get so isolated. … It’s not right.”

Hurlburt remembers one occasion when a lady in her 90s, who was still living in her home alone, called him on Christmas Eve to tell him that her water heater had burst and that her basement was filling with water. Hurlburt helped her with the situation and found that his own Christmas was a little more meaningful as a result.

Julie Longo is a more recent addition to the ranks of the agency’s volunteer base. She’s an occupational therapist by trade but wanted to acknowledge her own good fortune in life by giving back to the community she loves. So last May, Longo googled “volunteering in Oak Bay” and found herself drawn to the work of Oak Bay Volunteer Services. She was assigned a client and now Longo picks up “a lovely elderly woman” and together they drive to her client’s favourite walking trail; an area that had become impossible for the woman to get to without help.

“We walk for about an hour and a half and then we just sit and talk,” said Longo.

“In the end, I think I get as much out of the relationship as the lady I’m helping,” she said. “She has these fascinating stories of her life and they really give me a different perspective on things that I’d never otherwise have.”

The main challenge facing Oak Bay Volunteer Services is finding the funding to maintain the variety of assistance needed.

“A lot of effort is expended toward procuring funding,” says Halvorsen. “We get funding from individual donations and from the municipal and provincial governments as well as United Way, the VIHA and a number of trusts. Still, the amounts and the timing aren’t consistent and every year we’re starting over.”

To deal with that challenge, the agency has established its own trust fund in an effort to provide longterm stability to its programs.

The other challenge involves finding enough volunteers. “We need drivers,” said Halvorsen. “It’s a major issue for our clients; people who aren’t able or confident enough to take other transportation are still able to make their appointments and get out to visit friends. We give them their freedom back, but we need drivers to do that.”

For more information go to oakbayvolunteers.bc.ca or call 250-595-1034.

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