A generous, joyous dance of give and take

December 19, 2004|By Susan Reimer | By Susan Reimer,Sun Columnist

This is one in a series of occasional holiday-season features highlighting people in the Baltimore area who exemplify the spirit of The Sun's annual Spirit of Sharing Holiday Campaign.

A decade ago, three Severna Park women with freshly minted advance degrees in gerontology and health administration came up with this idea to put people who need something together with people who have something to give.

They named it, appropriately, Partners in Care.

Ten years later, Ken Dunshee is pushing a lawnmower over the dry leaves in the yard of a Gambrills man who just lost his wife.

Over on Ritchie Highway, Betty Volke volunteers three hours a week at a thrift shop that raises funds for Partners. For sale are hats crocheted by another volunteer with yarn donated by a third.

In the Partners in Care office space next door, one message board lists the people who need rides to doctor's appointments, to the grocery store or even to a musical performance.

Another board lists the handyman tasks that need doing: laundry, windows washed, light bulbs changed, railings built, and the volunteers available to do them.

Barbara Huston, Sandy Jackson and Maureen Cavaiola are still running this matrix of care, filling in where other county agencies leave gaps, especially in the area of transportation for the elderly, ill or handicapped.

But they also have created a kind of community among those in need and those who have what can only be described as an unscratchable itch to do something for somebody.

"It is not just about giving rides to people who need them," said Cavaiola. "It is the transaction -- the giving and the taking -- that keeps humans healthy."

Ray Johnson gave for years. Now he is taking.

A longtime driver, he has recently suffered some health setbacks of his own. In order to let his wife return to work as a teacher, someone from Partners in Care has been driving him to his doctor's appointments.

"I worked in counter-intelligence for years," Johnson said. "So I spent a lot of time on surveillance. You know, sitting in cars. So I never minded driving people to the doctors and sitting and waiting."

Said Jackson: "Now

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someone else gets to feel as good as he felt."

There is more to it than taxi service. Johnson drove one couple for many years and after their appointments they would stop at Denny's for something to eat.

If transportation is a significant problem for the elderly or the infirm, isolation might be worse. Most are determined to remain in the homes they know. But those homes can also become a kind of prison.

"Most of the people don't get out very often," said Lee Archibald, who does as much socializing as she does driving. "When they go out, they don't want to go back."

Partners is technically a talent / service bank, and those who sign up for rides or handyman help are supposed to find a way to "repay" the debt. Those who volunteer "bank" hours of service they can call on when they need it.

But the fact is, no one who asks for help is turned down, regardless of whether they can give back. And most of the able-bodied volunteers simply "donate" their hours to someone who needs them.

Though this "bank" would drive an auditor crazy, the books seem to balance out. Those who can do little more than stuff envelopes, address cards or answer the phone put some self-respect and pride in the "bank," too.

Archibald, 71, signed up with Partners after her own bout with incapacity -- she broke an arm and a leg. All the neighbors, friends and family who rallied to help her recover created in her a deep sense of gratitude. She wanted to give back.

In return for all her volunteer hours, a team of Partners handymen refinished her basement so she could rent it out and generate the money that helps her continue to live in her own home.

"I have received more than I have given," she said.

But Dunshee would say that, too. And he spends so many hours volunteering that he wears a Partners in Care ball cap and drives a -- donated -- pickup truck with a Partners in Care sign on the door. "My pay is the 'thank you' I get when I walk out the door," he said.

Dunshee has a wife, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and he volunteers through his church, too. He is a busy guy.

"I love the people, and I think this is the best program going," he said. "They are so flexible. Somebody asked me if I could drive someone on Friday. I have something else going, so I said I couldn't. And that wasn't a problem for anyone."

Huston, the bookkeeper in the group, reports that more than 110,000 hours of services have been exchanged among clients and volunteers in the last decade, including driving more than half a million miles. It is providing the equivalent of $300,000 in services a year.

And Partners has not only been there for the elderly, although there is the funny story about the 94-year-old woman who called and asked if that "young girl" was available to drive her again. And the "young girl" was a 74-year-old volunteer.

"We've had younger people who have health problems and their spouse has to work, and we help them, too," said Cavaiola.

If you would like to volunteer for Partners in Care, make a donation, or request more information, call 410-544-4800, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

How to help

The Sun's annual Spirit of Sharing Holiday Campaign raises money to help needy families in the Baltimore area during the holidays.

The campaign, administered by Baltimore Sun Charities, a fund of the McCormick Tribune Foundation, runs through December. For every $1 contributed, the foundation will contribute another 50 cents (up to $150,000). Administrative costs are covered, so all money raised will be distributed to those in need. Donations are tax-deductible.

To donate, send a check to Baltimore Sun Charities, c / o Public Affairs, Baltimore Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278.

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