Fall 1985 // Volume 23 // Number 3 // Ideas at Work // 3IAW1

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A Richmond Experiment


Jeanne Diana
Extension Specialist
Center for Volunteer Development
Richmond, Virginia

Jacqueline Lawrence, Chair
Noel Draine, Agent
Richmond Extension Office
Richmond, Virginia

Extension volunteers have been working as "companions"in the city of Richmond, becoming friends and helpers to homebound and/or elderly people to build a support system for those individuals.

It has been recognized for some time that people living alone and unable to care for themselves, usually the elderly or disabled, respond most positively to a situation where they're able to remain in their own home with support services brought to them. This method is also less costly to those who must pay for the service.

For example, a full-time professional person, assigned the task of providing volunteer companions to 20 clients, costs about $85 a month per client. In contrast, the cost of maintaining a client in an institutional setting, the usual alternative, is $1,650 a month. The money saved is probably less important than the human aspect, forgiven these options, most of us would prefer to remain in our homes supported by a companion.

In 1982, leaders in the Virginia Cooperative Extension Service believed the moment was at hand to propose a pilot volunteer companion program for the city of Richmond. Noting the needs of many solitary elderly and disabled individuals, and the reductions in federal support to these people, Extension leaders proposed to the city that:

Volunteer companions be recruited and educated to assist elderly or disabled persons or food stamp recipients who are confined to their homes and unable to care for themselves properly. The volunteers will be educated to offer assistance in proper nutrition, sound budgeting procedures, home management, food production and preservation, and perhaps also the location of needed resources in the community.

Before the pilot program began, a detailed evaluation procedure was written and agreed to by both city and university officials. A quarterly evaluation of progress toward the objectives was conducted, and by the end of the first year the program was on target. Since then, local support has been increased yearly, including funds for an additional agent.

Extension professionals everywhere have educational resources themselves or available to them from the universities to a far greater extent than most local funding sources realize. In Richmond, Extension looked at the needs of the city and developed a new and innovative program to meet city needs with Extension know-how. The result was a stronger Extension program.

In Virginia, the support for this kind of effort may be more available than elsewhere because of the Center for Volunteer Development. While all Extension systems emphasize the development of volunteer activities, Virginia is engaged in a unique effort funded in part by the Kellogg Foundation, and with the cooperation of two land-grant universities, Virginia Tech and Virginia State. Through this center, help is provided to local volunteer organizations by Extension staff.

Since the start of this program, the city and its agencies have become much more aware of the Extension potential. Requests of help for educational programming have increased greatly, due to the close contact involved in the development of this new program. Other localities may have different needs and develop other kinds of programs, but this is one example of moving into new areas through volunteer development and management.