Stella Brown is going strong at 89.
This fit and vibrant great-grandmother enjoys puttering around her garden and relaxing in her home, surrounded by photos and memories.
There’s only one issue — Brown no longer drives. While her family takes her grocery shopping and other places she needs to be, life can be tricky without a license.
When appointments with the doctor or hairstylist come up and family members are busy at work, Brown depends on the Eastside Neighbors Volunteer Program.
The program is part of the Neighbors Care Alliance, administered through Pima Council on Aging. Eastside Neighbors Volunteer Program is one of 18 organizations in the alliance, which assists neighborhoods and faith-based communities in helping seniors remain independent and in their homes as long as possible.
According to the most recent statistics, about 1,340 Pima County volunteers lend a helping hand to about 2,100 clients annually, with a value of $1.3 million a year in donated services, said Bridget Roads, outreach coordinator for the Neighbors Care Alliance.
Different organizations offer different services, but in general, volunteers provide transportation, errand-running, friendly visits and phone calls, light housekeeping and yard work, dog walking and other services at no cost. Some offer grief support and art and writing classes.
About four times a month, friendly drivers from Eastside Neighbors Volunteer Program provide rides to Brown, who is so pleased with the service that she makes regular donations to the nonprofit organization.
“They are just excellent,” said Brown, who moved to Tucson from Illinois with her family more than 40 years ago. “They just couldn’t be better.”
Last week, volunteer Mary Keller, 61, stopped by Brown’s home to drive her to an appointment with her dermatologist.
Keller has helped seniors through the Eastside Neighbors Volunteer Program for six years. She took early retirement from Tucson Unified School District, where she worked as a secretary, and was looking for volunteer work when she found information about the organization in the bulletin at Our Mother of Sorrows Catholic Church.
Keller said helping seniors to get where they need to be safely is vital. “The hardest thing for seniors is giving up independence,” she said.
She devotes as many as 10 hours most weeks driving clients to appointments in her comfortable Chrysler Sebring.
“The clients are so dear, so interesting,” Keller said. “It’s so nice to hear their stories and where they come from. I have learned so much from them.”
The two women chatted comfortably in Brown’s living room before it was time to leave for the doctor.
“Shall we hit the road?” Keller offered, and the two women headed out the door.
Keller is one of about 100 volunteers with Eastside Neighbors Volunteer Program, many of whom are retired, said Jann Hicks, program director.
Volunteers often leave town for the summer, making it challenging for the organization. Since volunteers are scarce, light housekeeping and home maintenance duties are suspended for the summer, Hicks said. “We are in dire need of drivers,” Hicks said.
The organization, which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, started with six volunteers and eight clients after neighbor and founder John Miller saw the need, Hicks said.
“It basically started out of John’s car,” Hicks said.
Today, Eastside Neighbors Volunteer Program has about 400 clients, all 55 or older.
When volunteers are more plentiful, they will change light bulbs, attempt to fix leaky faucets and perform other tasks.
“They are my angels,” Hicks said. “Our clients tell us we have the best volunteers in the world.”
She said volunteers offer clients independence.
“This allows them to remain in their homes with dignity and respect,” Hicks said.
Roads, outreach coordinator for the Neighbors Care Alliance, agreed that transportation is by far the biggest need. Alliance organizations reported that 1,045 volunteers drove 444,600 miles during fiscal year 2012-13.
She said some clients have no family in town, and can feel isolated. “It’s important for them to know someone cares,” Roads said.
Volunteers are rewarded richly for their service by getting to know the stories, histories and cultures of the clients they serve, she added.
“They get to know neighbors, they know they contribute to someone’s well-being and they have a good time,” Roads said.