Elizabeth Newman

April 22 marks an anniversary for my family.

In 2013, I was a block leader for an Earth Day Clean and Green project, and had handed out flyers to all my neighbors. But I was confident no one would be collecting trash apart from me and my husband.

Lo and behold, a family of four that we had never met before showed up. Jen and Mike and their kids, then 8 and 10, had moved in late fall to a house a few doors down, and a long Chicago winter meant we had never met.

Six years later, our families are tight, having been through both the good (a baby) and the bad (lots of illnesses). But we may have never become friends if not for volunteering for that humble Clean and Green project.

That’s why, with Earth Day once again around the program, I was excited to notice of Pioneer Network’s Community Commitment Award. It’s a chance to recognize members of the long-term care community who volunteer to help their communities. The deadline is April 19.

Applicants must have at least one resident who is actively involved, who would “typically be seen as the person who is the receiver of care and services, and not the giver,” said Joan Devine, Director of Education for Pioneer Network. The program has to be serving the greater community, fully operational for at least six months and include active participation by the residents. Three teams will receive a cash award covering registration, travel and lodging for the 2019 Pioneer Network conference. Last year Foulkeways at Gwynedd (Gwynedd, PA) Senior Scholars program, the Many Health Care & Rehab (Many, LA) Animal House Club and the Sherbrooke Community Center (Saskatoon, SK) We Day/Free the Children Committee were winners.

The award program, now in its second year, is a chance to promote the need for residents to feel like they still matter.

“Most people — there are few exceptions — feel good when they are needed,” she told McKnight’s. “Unfortunately, when you come to a nursing home, that can go away. You become a receiver of care.”

When residents are involved, they talk about feeling not only helpful but “worthy,” she added.

“As humans we want to feel useful. Our elders have an awful lot to give,” Devine said

She hopes that those with robust programs will apply. But for those who are brainstorming about ways to create volunteer activities, communities can start small, she explained. For example, a knitting club or painting group can focus on a project that benefits the community: The knitters may be able to partner with a children’s hospital to make hats, or the painters could hold an exhibit where proceeds benefit a local arts organization.

Animals also have a draw for some, Devine said. Some organizations have had seniors foster dogs and cats, with one Arizona facility connecting dementia residents with a bottle-feeding kitten program. (For those who are not familiar with the intricacies of stray cat biology, spring often brings an explosion of kittens. Those who have lost their mothers need to be fed constantly.)

Finally, we return to the upcoming Earth Day. Skilled nursing residents may not be excited about picking up trash. But many would enjoy planning a garden for spring planting, or starting seeds indoors. Those who like to cook can help make suet. At the very least, find a way for those who are limited in mobility to spend time outdoors and listening to nature, which studies indicate can help overall health.

One venture can evolve into a larger “green” volunteer activity.

For our part, our Chicago neighborhood has become a little cleaner over the years. But we’ll still be joining our friends — to help keep it that way.

Follow Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman @TigerELN.