in Doing more, The State We're In, Things we do, Work Camping

Volunteering during the pandemic: our month at Escapees CARE

At a time when the world is quite literally ailing, we were able to experience a little healing by occupying our minds, hands and hearts in service to others.

The mental and emotional balm was invaluable, and that alone would have been compensation enough for our work, but we gained so. much. more.

Wait. Escapees what?

There’s this quite remarkable place in Livingston, TX, called the Escapees CARE Center, and if you’ve attended an Escapees or Xscapers event, you’ve probably heard of it, and maybe even thrown some money toward a fundraiser for it.

It’s not where old RV’ers go to die.

It’s where they go to live better, longer — in the comfort of their own RVs.

So maybe before I explain to you what we did at CARE, I should explain to you what CARE is.

It stands for Continuing Assistance for Retired Escapees, and its mission, straight out of the employee/volunteer handbook, is “to provide a home for Escapees members who are no longer able to travel due to their age or disabilities. The purpose is to allow them to remain in their own RV home while receiving support services that will enable them to continue to live independently.”

And from the web site, “CARE is a place where you will receive professional help for the things you may no longer be able to do. It is not a nursing home. Its goal is to delay or eliminate the need for a nursing home, or assisted living.”

It’s a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that includes both residential and adult day care (ADC) programs, and it’s been in operation since 1995. (More FAQs)

During our time there, there were 52 residents in 40 RV sites (of an available 60), and although the ADC was closed during our first 3 weeks, we were able to help welcome back about 8 clients as quarantine restrictions eased.

How’d you get into it?

I must have seen a plea for volunteers in one of our RVing Facebook groups.

We were attracted by the opportunity to give back to the Escapees community (y’all, we get far more value out of our annual membership fee than the $40.00 we put in), as well as by the volunteer requirements and benefits.

Volunteer Row at CARE
We were provided a 50-amp full hookup RV site, three meals a day, and access to a free washer & dryer.

We knew we’d be serving on a team of about 8 volunteers, each putting in 24-32 hours a week, to help provide some of the benefits CARE offers its clients: assistance with daily tasks, meals, errands, and appointments.

We completed our applications in July 2019, and got on the roster for the month of May 2020, knowing that we could zip over to Livingston after our usual annual visit to San Antonio in April.

Little did we know then how unusual the spring of 2020 would be!

Were you worried about COVID-19?

Yes, for a few reasons.

  1. CARE residents are an at-risk population due to both advanced age and to underlying health issues. Contracting or inadvertently transmitting the virus were real concerns.
  2. Group activities and outings had been all but eliminated at CARE because of social distancing and sanitary protocols, and no visitors were allowed. This made us wonder if we’d even have enough to do to make it worth the risk of Item 1.
  3. What if the virus resurged while we were there, and quarantine orders were extended? Would we be able to shelter in place beyond our month-long commitment?

After lengthy email and phone discussions with the volunteer coordinator, we were assured that reasonable precautions were being taken to keep residents, staff, and volunteers safe.

We were also assured that although volunteer duties had been minimized, our assistance was indeed still needed and that there’d be space for us should we have to extend our stay.

Benefits outweighed risk, so we went.

How was your first week?

A little lonely.

We abided by the staff nurse’s request to self-quarantine for 7 days upon arrival.

On the 8th day, we were ready for training, and after that, it was daily temperature checks, social distancing, and judicious use of masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer for all.

A few crafty CARE residents had their own mask production line cranking away, and we were issued a set.
Yeah, mine’s on upside down. It was just for a quick selfie, OK?
(Top R photo credit: Escapees CARE, Inc.)

So what kinds of things did you do?

We rotated on a 4-team, 4-day roster that included Driver/Honey-Do Day, Backup Driver Day, On-Call Day (24 hours), and a day off.

Most of our duties revolved around meals. The dining hall was open only for a sparsely attended continental breakfast for our first ten days, so we helped take orders and deliver lunch and dinner to residents’ RVs.

When the facility reopened for noon and evening meals, at reduced capacity to enforce social distancing, we volunteers then juggled jobs as order takers, servers, deliverers (for those who weren’t yet comfortable dining in), and cleaner-uppers.

Photo credit: Escapees CARE, Inc.
When I say we “took orders,” what that really means is that we checked in with each resident every morning to find out whether they wanted the daily lunch and dinner offerings — or not.
The big meal of the day was served at noon; a light supper in the evening.
I did not cook all month.
Dessert twice a day? I’m in!
Oh, and one of our volunteers brought in dozens of fresh doughnuts at least once a week, and all this is my way of telling you that I am dieting now.

On driving days, we made use of the CARE minivan fleet to take residents to necessary appointments. Some days, because of quarantine closures and/or cautious residents, there were no outings at all. This was a big change from usual operations*, when we’re told all four minivans were in and out all day long.

*One of the residents, Ms. R, referred to the time before the pandemic as “back when things were cool.” Can’t begrudge her that! It was cool when we could get together at will with our friends for movies, shopping, potlucks, and game nights. Make no mistake that the aged among us feel the isolation deeply, and in ways we “whippersnappers” can’t even appreciate.

That big bus is for the center’s weekly group trip to Walmart, which was reinstated while we were there, but limited to half the usual number of residents.
Tim and one of the other volunteers had to spend some time convincing the chair lift to get its butt back in action, and I’m proud to say they were successful.

As for honey-do’s, those were tasks that tended to fall outside the realm of usual volunteer duties, and we were welcome to tackle them if we felt comfortable and/or skilled enough to do so.

After nearly 6 years of dealing with our own RV issues, Tim the Tool Man can — and did — tackle a wide range of repairs. Let’s see… he attacked roof damage, a window leak, a dead coach battery, a water hose leak, and a floor register clean-out, among other things.
This wobbly dining table didn’t stand a chance.
And now it stands firmly!

What about other memorable happenings?

Mother’s Day fell on our first weekend on duty.
There were flowers, hand made cards, enthusiastic chalk decorations, and a special lunch of barbecued ribs.
Since we were the couple on call (read: in charge) that day, and I wanted the residents to get to know us better, I put up photos of each of us with our mothers, plus the two boys who made me a mom.
Two of our volunteers brought karaoke (CARE-aoke?) to our Friday afternoons.
I sang!
I normally don’t.
But ummm… my audience included folks who don’t see well, hear well, or remember well, and that struck me as a pretty safe combination for my lack of talent.

So. Much. Gratitude.
They thanked us every day for our service to them — in person, in writing, and even in a couple of ginormous steaks (Tim wouldn’t accept money, and Mr. L wouldn’t accept that Tim wouldn’t accept money, so he gifted us with porterhouse steaks in appreciation for a roof patch-up).
And no, I have not left Tim for someone named Kevin.
There was a mix-up at the beginning of the month with another volunteer couple, Kevin stuck, and in a population that neither hears nor remembers terribly well, it was easier just to roll with it.
She Who Must Be Obeyed?
Look.
All I said was, “Maybe the volunteer in charge for the day should wear a special hat.”
I was thinking CARE ball cap.
But a fellow volunteer grabbed two pieces of scrap paper and fashioned me a crown in about 12 seconds.
It’s like she knew me or something.
This.
This is what it’s all about at CARE: the relationships.

We learned so much. We listened, we gave comfort, we cried, and we laughed. We made friends and shared stories. We were given a sense of purpose at a time when we needed to feel needed.

And we’ll do it again.

We haven’t chosen a month to commit yet, but we really want to go back and see how it feels during non-pandemic conditions — when things are cool again. (Hat tip to you, Ms. R!)


Interested in furthering CARE’s mission?

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  1. Emily,
    You continue to amaze me and I am in awe of this current post! You and Tim are incredible, Rock Stars really!
    I hope you write a book one day! The Book Club will have a wonderful discussion on this incredible woman and her adventures!
    Glad you’re doing well!!!
    Michele

    • Awwww, thank you! This one was a winner for sure. It was like having grandparents again when we needed them most.

  2. I can’t believe you didn’t bust out the Jazz moves during your karaoke!

    CARE is a great idea. Are they thinking of making more? Do they fill up at that one ever? I suppose I could go read the FAQs 😀

    Thanks for giving to the world and making it a better place. There can never be too much of that!

    • OMG I would have caused one of those sweet old men to have a heart attack. Ha! Let us all be thankful that my moves were limited by the microphone cord.

      Not sure about adding additional facilities around the country; it wasn’t mentioned to us.

      Earlier this year, though, they added 14 new sites for residents and 4 dedicated volunteer sites. I failed to ask whether they ever fill up.