November 23, 2010

Ocracokers organize volunteer group to reach out to the community


Some years ago, a 5-year-old boy was found wandering alone along the beach at Ocracoke Island's South Point. The story he told was heart-rending. His brother, two years older, had ventured too far out into the channel and had been caught in a rip current. The father, seeing his son pulled under, had tried to save him. Neither had returned.  No one knew how to contact the boy's mother, so for four days National Park Service rangers were left, with the help of the local doctor, caring for the child -- a job they were ill-prepared to undertake
This is just one example of the kind of crisis that being on the isolated island of Ocracoke can lead to, and it’s the reason for a new volunteer program on the island called "Ocracare Outreach."

Ocracokers have a strong tradition of looking out for each other, as well as for strangers if need be. There are times, however, when extra assistance is needed. That is why three island residents got together to formulate a plan that would coordinate volunteers to help provide assistance to those in need.

These might be people who are aged or ill, and who may not be able to drive or do all of their household chores. The program would also provide assistance to family members who have to work and need a break from their caregiving tasks or don't have time to transport a parent for hospital treatments.

It would also address the needs of visitors, such as the ones mentioned above, who find themselves in some kind of emergency situation. It is a way of organizing Ocracoke’s traditional ways of caring for each other within the community and looking out for one another to assure that no one is left in need.

 “I’ve been aware for a long time of how hard it is for older people living so far away from many services," says Susan Dodd, one of the facilitators of this program. "About a year ago, I thought I would start asking questions of others in the community and see what they thought. I expected to be discouraged, but I got enthusiastic responses."

Susan, a native of Chicago and a former writer and teacher who lives full-time on Ocracoke now, teamed up with Ingeborg Frye and Ken DeBarth, both of whom have training and experience in health and social service fields, with the idea of forming a network of volunteers who could perform a number of tasks.

They looked into forming a non-profit organization, but realized that the costs of getting non-profit status and providing liability insurance for the volunteers would be prohibitive.
Instead they approached Laura Stern, the new minister at the United Methodist Church, about operating under the umbrella of the church’s non-profit status. The pastor, who believes strongly that the church should be involved in community outreach, was encouraging.

She agreed, and the group was able to move forward using the church’s legal status and liability insurance. Dodd emphasizes, however, that even though the program will operate under the umbrella of the Methodist Church, the group is not a church function and does not have religious affiliations.

Ocracare will not have an office, but will have a cell phone and a cell phone number that will always be available for those needing help. The phone will be passed around among the volunteers who monitor it.

 Ingeborg Frye, who moved to the United States from the Netherlands 25 years ago and has made Ocracoke her home for 10 years, explains that "Due to the geographic location of Ocracoke, we are forced to rely on our own resources...This is an ideal community to implement a program like this."

Frye, now the after-school librarian at the Ocracoke Library, has a background in home health care and hospice and a master’s degree in sociology. Currently pursuing a grief management degree, she feels that her resources can be a valuable asset to the project as it moves forward.

 Ken DeBarth, who was part of the original steering committee involved in putting this together, is a long-time resident of Ocracoke and a physician’s assistant (PA) with 30 years of experience in primary care. He describes the Ocracare program as a clearing house for coordinating volunteers and the people needing their assistance, adding that it can be a "vital service for the community."

 Ocracare Outreach is not a hospice program, nor will it provide financial assistance. It will be available for anyone who needs help, regardless of income or age. This help includes such tasks as friendly visits, daily phone check-ins, respite care for family or friends, meals, shopping and errands, child care, pet care, prescription pick-up, medical paperwork assistance, emergency support for visitors, transportation to the Ocracoke Health Center and off-island appointments, and hospital/nursing home visits.

There will also be off-island "Ocracare friends" in communities where Ocracokers may go to hospitals who can provide transportation, support, and possibly a place to stay after release. One of the most important results of the program will be that more aging people will be able to stay home at Ocracoke, instead of going to nursing homes or other off island facilities.

A brochure on the program is in the works to let Ocracokers and visitors know about the services offered, and Dodd and Frye expect to have a meeting of volunteers in early January of 2011. They hope to begin services soon after that.

There are currently at least 20 volunteers signed up to help, and the organizers are hoping more will sign on. It is hoped that in the future young people, ages 12 and up, will be able to participate in the program, providing such services as visiting, walking dogs, and mowing lawns. The biggest overall need is for transportation off the island for medical appointments.

All volunteers will be expected to respect their clients’ confidentiality and make sure that what is said and done stays behind closed doors.

 Ocracoke seniors have previously had the services of "Meals-on-Wheels," but this program ended last June when the supervisor, Sue O’Neal, retired. Dodd and Frye hope to see this service resume and to have Ocracare Outreach work closely with it.
 According to Susan Dodd, who is on the board of the Ocracoke Health Center, "Health care is the biggest challenge of living on Ocracoke, and everyone of us has to deal with it."

She hopes, however, that getting health care will become easier here, not only because of this program but because the Health Center is applying to become a federally qualified center, which would make it eligible for federal funds and more services and staff.

Ocracoke is a great place to live -- as well as to visit -- and the Ocracare Outreach volunteers hope to make it easier for aging and/or ill residents to stay here for as long as they want and to get the help they might require.

All are encouraged to participate, as volunteers if you are able or as clients, if you need extra help.

For more information or to volunteer or ask for help, call Susan Dodd at 252-928-3888 or Ingeborg Frye at 252-921-0128.

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