A Volunteer's Story
- Written by Jessica Riel
- Published: August 9, 2016
Meet Margarete and Barbara, Benefits Counselors
“One of the things I thought about as I went into retirement was: what was I going to do? What did I want to do next?” says Margarete Couture. “And I decided that I was only going to do things that bring joy to me.”
Margarete, along with Barbara Watson, found what brings her joy: volunteering with LifePath as a Benefits Counselor.
Benefits Counselors, overseen by Gretchen Smith, Benefits Counseling Program Coordinator, assist elders and people with disabilities with learning about the benefits to which they are entitled and filling out applications. These volunteers help give people residing in Franklin County, as well as those living in the four Worcester Country towns of Athol, Petersham, Phillipston, and Royalston in the North Quabbin, access to benefits programs offering assistance with home repair, weatherization, fuel assistance, disability modifications, foreclosure protection, utility discounts, and SNAP (food stamps).
“It’s just nice to be able to reassure them that there is help out there,” says Barbara.
Both volunteers are former educators who have retired. “I was busy at home with lots of different stuff,” says Barbara, who lives in Gill, “but wanted to do some form of volunteer work. This one sounded like a good match with my skills.”
Margarete relocated to Bernardston from out of state. “I didn’t know anybody and yet I felt a real need to connect with the community. And so when this opportunity came available, I became a volunteer.”
The women enjoy the opportunity to get to know their neighbors. “Each elder has their own special story,” says Margarete. “It’s really important when you walk in that door to make a connection and take the time to listen."
“We usually start just with conversation,” says Barbara, “ask how they’re doing. I don’t like to get down to business too fast. I mean I don’t want to waste their time, but I want them to understand that we have the time.”
Benefits Counselors usually meet in an elder’s home or other setting of their choice. During their initial meeting and any that may follow, the counselors will work with an elder to assess their needs, explain what they can expect, help gather the necessary paperwork, and begin the application process.
Sometimes, an elder may decide to apply for some programs but not others. “Then, later down the road,” says Barbara, “once they’ve made that connection that Margarete’s talking about, they’ll decide, ‘Well, you know, maybe I should talk some more with that person about other benefits.’”
Volunteering with elders through LifePath, Margarete and Barbara have learned to “respect where they’re coming from and to honor their strong desire to be as independent as they can,” says Margarete. “And that’s what I really like about doing this work. LifePath focuses so much on helping the elders stay as independent as they can in their lives.”
Both women agree that LifePath has been a supportive setting for their volunteer experience. “I just love that as volunteers we can go out into the community and assist elders that need help,” says Margarete. “The other piece is how we get help. I feel like I can call on somebody. I can certainly call Gretchen,” says Margarete. “She meets you where you’re at as a volunteer.”
Barbara agrees. “Where to start!” Barbara says that Gretchen helps “on all different levels, from running these trainings that we do periodically to refresh our memories on things that maybe we’ve learned before but we haven’t actually practiced recently or to introduce new topics.”
The monthly meetings and ongoing training give volunteers “an opportunity to meet different service providers,” says Margarete, “and learn how we can then offer those services to the elders that we support and serve.” When she has submitted an application for a client, Margarete will also share it with Gretchen, who will review it and provide feedback so that Margarete can do a better job the next time. “It’s important to me that I have a really high success rate with the elders that I help.”
Barbara says she values being “able to call Gretchen whenever we have a question or an issue or we’re not sure how to proceed. She’s very thorough.”
Margarete appreciates that volunteering with LifePath has allowed her to manage her time as she chooses while still making a difference in the lives of others. “One of the first lessons that Gretchen taught me was that I was a volunteer and that I could say no when I wasn’t available without feeling guilty or (worrying) that I wouldn’t be called on again to provide a service,” says Margarete.
“I frequently tell people that I am assisting elders and always look for an opportunity to encourage them to find what makes them happy,” says Margarete.
Would volunteering with LifePath make you happy? Give LifePath a call at 413-773-5555 or 978-544-2259 to inquire about volunteer options, email us with questions, and read about other volunteers’ experiences on our blog.