VOICE volunteers make daily calls to check on homebound Beaufort residents

charley@beaufortgazette.comJuly 1, 2012 

Jeanette Martin could hear something different in her client's voice.

She had been calling George, a senior citizen who lived alone, every other Tuesday as a part of the Beaufort Police Department's Volunteer Outreach in the Community program (VOICE) in which volunteers check in with homebound people daily to ensure their well-being.

George said he was fine when she called, but on this day in 2007, Martin's intuition told her to have officers and medical personnel check on him.

She was right. Something was wrong. Her client was having congestive heart failure. Martin, a VOICE volunteer for 10 years, rode by his house just in time to see them loading him into an ambulance.

The program was founded in 1998 by Faye McGowan, a home health nurse, and Cliff Miller, a Beaufort police officer, who were both concerned about homebound people who lived alone.

"It is important for them to know somebody cares about them, and for them to look forward to these calls while we make sure they are OK," McGowan said.

"I just thought it was something that would be helpful to the public," she said. "A couple of times we had to send dispatch: Once a patient was on the floor and had to be taken to the hospital, another was diabetic and didn't answer the phone."

Now, 14 years later, McGowan has retired due to her health, but the program continues under the watch of Lt. Doug Kadas at the Beaufort Police Department.

"To some of the clients, the calls are very, very important," Kadas said. "Sometimes, this is the only call they get."

Theo Woods of Beaufort is among a dozen VOICE volunteers who call about 20 clients.

"They are delightful, very polite and very grateful," said Woods, who, with Martin, was recruited to volunteer by their mutual friend, McGowan.

Both retired from teaching in Beaufort and were looking for a worthy place to volunteer. They shared the gift of gab and love to lend an ear, so VOICE sounded like a good place to spend their new free time.

"It makes you feel like you are doing something worthwhile, and they are most appreciative, that's what keeps you going sometimes when you know people appreciate what you are doing," Woods said.

MAKING THE CALLS

A thick binder holds the list of clients to be called along with a photo of each, their dates of birth and addresses.

"Good morning," said Woods in a sweet Beaufort accent. "I'm calling from the police station. Are you doing OK?"

She inquired about the health of family members then replied, "Oh, my land. Oh, mercy. Well, bless her heart," as they discussed someone's elevated blood pressure.

On another call when there was no answer by the fifth ring, Woods said the client was known as a late-riser: "She's sleeping. I'm sure." A plan was made to call back the client.

One conversation turned to food. An elderly woman informed Woods: "I'm getting ready to cook grits and fish, and I'm soaking my grits right now."

"Oh, that sounds good!," Woods replied.

With each call, a note was made on the status of the client.

Call topics frequently went from politics to instructions on how to live a good life to the most popular discussion of all: aches and pains -- mostly arthritis.

The volunteers check to see if the clients are in need of anything and if they're OK.

"I just enjoy talking with them and seeing what they are up to. One man I call can talk for up to 30 minutes," Woods said.

Conversations are short with clients who are woken up by the calls and want to go back to sleep or who are interrupted while watching their favorite television shows.

When Woods received an answering machine, she left a message: "Just wanted you to know we are thinking of you! Have a lovely day!," she said.

If someone does not answer and the volunteer is concerned, an officer is sent to the house to check on them.

BECOMING A CLIENT

Clients must live in the city limits. Some are recommended by the Beaufort County Department of Social Services, others by word of mouth, some by adult children or relatives who live out of town and want someone local to check in on their loved ones.

In addition to volunteering for the Beaufort group, Martin had a hand in getting an offshoot of the Beaufort VOICE program started in Georgetown. When she told her cousin, who was the Georgetown mayor at the time, about her involvement in the Beaufort program, he talked them into doing the same thing, Martin said.

Because of her own health problems, Martin had to stop volunteering for VOICE in 2011. Martin and McGowan both say they miss the clients. And Martin is considering becoming a client herself.

"You get to where you have a special feeling about these people that you talk to, and it does your heart good," she said.

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