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?

Surprise! We worked as pickers again.

No, not for Amazon, like we did in 2017.

Better.

Way, way better.

This time we were picking lint out of Carlsbad Caverns.

Yes, actual lint.

Like dryer vent lint, but 800 feet under ground, embedded in what you might think of as Mother Nature’s navel, for four days, with 30 other RVing volunteers who paid for a week-long excursion to get the job done.

It went like this.

And sometimes like this.

Like picking merchandise for Amazon, our task was tedious and repetitive, and it left us with surprisingly sore muscles, but this time? We earned far more reward. Our team was helping — really helping — one of our treasured national parks look better, and maybe even survive longer.

Are you still stuck on the lint thing? Fine.

How does the lint get there?

About half a million visitors walk through the caverns each year (that, and other cool facts about the park are here). The clothing fibers, hair, and skin cells that naturally fall off of their bodies end up collecting as wads of lint along the walkways, and also trapped on the sides and in crevices of nearby rock formations.

The lint makes the formations look grubby, and also causes them to break down over time, as it collects moisture and blocks air from their surfaces.

This problem was discovered about 30 years ago, and volunteers have been arduously and carefully removing lint ever since, at a rate of about 19 pounds a year. (Remember that number. There’s a quiz later.)

This poster in the Visitor Center explains it.
(Photo: D. Goldstein)
We looked just like the poster!
(Photo: D. Goldstein)
Sort of?

Fascinating. Now how did you get there?

We signed up to join the Escapees Carlsbad Caverns Cleanup Hangout as soon as registration opened back in October, knowing that 1) this Hangout’s mission was to spend a week in service to a national park, and 2) that we are already big fans of this particular program after having such a blast at the Downeast Maine Hangout last year.

Our Hangout directors made sure we always knew where to be, when to be there, and what to do, and they also coordinated some group events and meals outside of work time, so that we could all have fun getting to know each other.

Our welcome gathering on the first night, with directors David & Cheryl Goldstein (standing) describing the mission we were about to accept.
We went on a group hike to nearby Guadalupe Mountains National Park, and…
… ate out at few locally owned restaurants.
And of course, as RVers do wherever they gather, we overindulged at more than a couple of potlucks at the campground.
(Photo: C. Goldstein)
We all stayed at White’s City RV Park, a quick 7-mile drive from the caverns.
No frills, but quiet and convenient, with access to a 3.6 mile hiking trail to the park, for those who might want a more strenuous way to get back and forth.
I climbed only the first 1/4 mile to get this photo of the campground from above.

Did you need special equipment?

Yes, and the park can provide all of it, but our group arrived prepared with a lot of our own gear. Our yellow vests with the Escapees logo were included in our event fee; the park has a stash of their own logo vests for other volunteers to borrow.

For safety: reflective vests, knee pads, head lamps, helmets, rubber gloves

For lint collecting: paint brushes in various sizes, plastic baggies

Who you gonna call? Lint Busters!
(Someday, I will forgive Hangout Director David Goldstein for implanting that ear worm. But not yet.)
Orientation, training, and gear issue took up most of our first morning.
After a lunch break, we were ready to get to work!

What were your work hours and conditions?

Expectations were clear from the start. We weren’t scared.

This screen cap is from our Hangout description page.
Click here for a more thorough document.

Our work hours in the cavern were from 10-12 and 1-3, Monday through Thursday, with lunch on site (brown bag or park concession).

At 9:30 a.m., we’d gather in our meeting room with our ranger (Jo Ann Garcia or David Tise, depending on the day), learn about our work location while gathering our equipment and putting on our gear, and then descend together to the cleaning area. At noon, we’d stop work, head back up to the meeting room to drop off our equipment and gear, and take our lunch break. Repeat the 9:30 routine at 1:00, and the noon routine at 3:00, only we’d go home instead of to lunch.

On Day 1, we descended through the natural entrance into the Bat Cave, and in just over 2 hours…
… this was what only half of our collection looked like. I took this picture before everyone had returned to our meeting room with their haul.
Daily amounts varied by individual, and by the areas in which we were picking. My bags weighed right around 2.5 ounces — after four hours of very diligent work.
Annotated map showing where we worked each day
(Credit: D. Goldstein)
Here’s our crew of triumphant lint pickers, with all the gunk we collected in that black garbage bag in front of us.
No, we’re not flashing gang signs. The Hawaiian shaka, meaning “hang loose,” is the official Hangouts symbol, greeting, and goofy pose of choice.
(Photo: random guy with a real camera and a lot of patience)

Did anything unexpected happen?

Well, one thing we were not prepared for was the number of cavern visitors who stopped to ask us what we were doing. We’d explain as briefly as we could, since we had work to do and they had exploring to do, and it was such a kick to watch their reactions.

They were astounded — and a bit grossed out — to learn that lint is such a big issue, and every person I spoke to expressed sincere gratitude for our efforts. I even got a few laughs when I’d joke in my best mom voice, “Don’t walk there. I just cleaned that!”

Get to the good part, Emily. How much lint did y’all get???

Remember the annual average I told you way up there?

I’ll save you the scroll.

It was 19 pounds.

Our crew of 32, putting in seven roughly 2-hour shifts over four days, right here at the beginning of 2020, collected …

… drum roll please …

28 pounds.

Twenty. Eight. Pounds.

Eeeeeeeeee!!!!!

Were you compensated for your efforts?

As volunteers, the only compensation we wanted or needed was the satisfaction of providing a much needed service, and we got plenty.

The park also thanked us with some nice material goodies, including certificates of appreciation, logo pencils, water bottles, and bandanas.

They also gifted us on our last day with a complimentary guided tour of the King’s Palace, a section of the cave that not many visitors get to see, as it requires an advance reservation and an additional fee.

Now that’s my kind of reward: a unique and memorable experience.

I’m not an RV’er or an Escapee. Can I pick lint too?

Yes. According to our rangers, the park welcomes scouts and other service groups, as well as individuals and families (ages 10 and up). Contact the volunteer coordinator to make arrangements, and you too can fill a baggie (or 2 or 6 or 30) with icky gray cave lint!


For further reading:

Dirty clothes, athletes in wheelchairs, and a way to give back

I found a way!

Or, as some might believe, the path was laid in front of me, and I just had to follow it. Whatever. All I know is that our itinerant lifestyle makes it difficult to volunteer — an activity we have both relied on (and enjoyed!) as a way of giving back to the military duty stations we’ve called home.

While tossing dirties into the washing machine in the laundry room at our latest home, I noticed a stack of post cards on the folding table.

1. Veterans: close to my heart 2. Wheelchair warriors: ditto (more on that coming up) 3. Going on right here, right now 4. Volunteers needed 5. And I've got that kind of time

1. Veterans: close to my heart
2. Wheelchair warriors: ditto (more on that coming up)
3. Going on right here, right now
4. Volunteers needed
5. And I’ve got that kind of time

First task: research the event. 36th annual games, and I’d never heard of them! From the web site:

Co-Presented by the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Paralyzed Veterans of America, the National Veterans Wheelchair Games is a rehabilitation and wheelchair sports program empowering Veterans with spinal cord injuries, multiple sclerosis, amputations and other neurological injuries to live more active and healthy lives through wheelchair sports and recreation.

Each summer, Veterans from across the United States, including a team from Great Britain, travel to a new community hosting the NVWG. During the week, Veterans compete in 18 wheelchair sports events while providing encouragement and mentoring for new Veterans. Veterans at the Games truly educate newly disabled Veterans on what is possible and those witnessing the events realize that limitations are only state of mind.

Second task: register online as a volunteer. The process was easy and quick, and I had confirmation of two scheduled shifts within hours.

Third task: respond appropriately to brain when it makes the connection, “OMG, Emily. Your cousins!” My cousin, Zane, and his wife, Debbie, own Gloves for Life, a company that manufactures assistive hand gear for wheelchair users. Debbie herself suffered a spinal cord injury in 2008, which left her a C6/C7 complete quadriplegic. In her words:

… these gloves could provide me something that my hands no longer could—“grip”.  They enabled me to easily maneuver my wheelchair, they made transfers more stable, aided in dressing and proved to be helpful in other daily tasks because when your fingers don’t work you get creative!

So I messaged Debbie to ask if she had business cards or flyers I could print and take with me to the games, and not only did she zap me a file within minutes, she added a special discount for the athletes! Heart: full.

IMG_6757

Ready for chills? Debbie and I have never actually met. We know each other only through other family members, and via Facebook. I know. (And yes, we keep a color printer and all kinds of paper stock here in the RV. You have your priorities; we have ours.)

Fourth task: get to the games in time for my shift at the weight lifting competition.

Bought a UTA Rail pass to get me there and back, and it couldn't have been easier, with stations mere steps from my Point A and Point B. It's only a 2-mile walk, and I considered hoofing it, but since my shift wasn't over until 10pm, I thought it safer to ride.

Bought a UTA Rail pass to get me there and back, and it couldn’t have been easier, with stations mere steps from my Point A and my Point B.

Here's how I knew I was heading in the right direction.

Here’s how I knew I was heading in the right direction.

Once inside, it was easy. I checked in at a digital kiosk...

Once inside, it was easy — astounding considering the scope of these games, with 18 events at 9 locations over 7 days, involving more than 500 athletes, their family members/coaches, a platoon of event staff, sponsors, visiting dignitaries, volunteers, and more details than most people juggle in a lifetime. All I had to do was check in at a digital kiosk…

... picked up my shirt and credentials...

… pick up my shirt and credentials…

... grabbed a meal voucher, which made it so that I didn't have to pay the usual nosebleed prices for convention center concessions...

… grab a meal voucher, which made it so that I didn’t have to pay the usual nosebleed prices for convention center concessions (Thanks, event sponsors!)…

... and took the obligatory selfie. Now I'm ready.

… and take the obligatory selfie.
Now it’s time for what really matters.

This is Tim, from Virginia, instructing us volunteers at Bench 5 on our duties. He's been involved with the games for 32 of their 36 years, and judges events all week long. He'd just come from the softball fields, changed his shirt, and got to work. Again. Until 10pm. That's dedication.

This is Tim, from Virginia, instructing us volunteers and his co-judges at Bench 5 on our duties.
He’s been involved with the games for 32 of their 36 years, and judges events all week long. He’d just come from the softball fields, changed his shirt, and got to work. Again. Until 10pm.
That’s dedication.

Here he's explaining proper technique to the athletes. Rules had changed from the year before, so it was essential that everyone understood the new procedure.

Here he’s explaining proper technique to the athletes. Rules had changed from the year before, so it was essential that everyone understood the new procedure.

My two co-volunteers, both of whom work in some capacity for the VA, but not in direct patient care, were so inspiring to watch. They assisted the competitors from chair to bench and back, which was an athletic endeavor in and of itself. They strapped down legs for those who requested it, usually with lots of jokes and laughter. "You can make it tighter, man. I can't feel it!" These two gentleman also, without a moment's hesitation, acted quickly to ensure modesty by pulling shirts down and shorts up during all the transfers. It was an issue. And their matter-of-fact handling of it touched my sarcastic little heart in ways I can't even describe.

My co-volunteers, both of whom work in some capacity for the VA, but not in direct patient care, were so inspiring to watch.
They assisted the competitors from chair to bench and back, which was an athletic endeavor in and of itself. They strapped down legs for those who requested it, usually with lots of jokes and laughter. “You can make it tighter, man. I can’t feel it!”
These two gentleman also, without a moment’s hesitation, helped ensure the athletes’ modesty by pulling shirts back down and shorts back up during all the transfers. It was an issue. And their matter-of-fact handling of it touched my sarcastic little heart in ways I can’t even describe.

Many athletes pulled out all the patriotic stops in dressing for the occasion. At least one had red, white, and blue hair.

Many athletes pulled out all the patriotic stops in dressing for the occasion. At least one was sporting red, white, and blue hair, but I was too far away to snap a pic.

My job? Score keeper. Because I have excellent penmanship, and I didn't want to have to do public math to figure out which weights to put on the bar each time. Play to your strengths, y'all. Play to your strengths. The winner at Bench 5 pressed 300, then 330, then 365 pounds, a fact which mightily impressed my 19-year-old son when I reported it. Definitely a win.

My job? Scribe — because I have excellent penmanship, and I didn’t want to have to do public math to figure out which weights to put on the bar each time. Play to your strengths, y’all. Play to your strengths.
The winner at Bench 5 pressed 300, then 330, then 365 pounds, a fact which mightily impressed my 19-year-old son when I reported it.
Definitely a win.

Next morning, I helped staff the NVWG Guest Services table at the Sheraton. We were stocked with items the athletes might need: bus schedules, dining guides, city maps, snacks, water bottles, etc. Seemed like a great place to set out the Gloves for Life cards!

Next morning, I helped staff the NVWG Guest Services table at one of the host hotels. We were stocked with items the athletes might need: bus schedules, dining guides, city maps, snacks, water bottles, etc.
Seemed like a great place to set out the Gloves for Life cards!

Fifth task: emotionally processing my take-aways. In no particular order:

  1. Volunteering feels good, and with a bit more sleuthing in each new home, I bet I can find other local events that will allow us to give back.
  2. The wheelchair athletes are just that. Athletes. Nothing is special about them, and everything is special about them. They served our country. They sustained injuries or illnesses during or after their military careers, that caused them to assess, adapt, and start over. They put all that together in positive ways, and just. kept. going.
  3. The phrase that stopped me in my tracks, in all caps on a competitor’s t-shirt: NOT RUNNING SUCKS. Whoooosh. Sound of all the air leaving my body, as I contemplated the number of times I’ve thought hiking, or yard work, or insert-strenuous-endeavor-of-choice sucked. Ouch.
  4. Perspective. I gained some, again, and I remain thankful for the opportunity. I also know I’ll get whomped upside the head with it many more times in this lifetime, if I’m smart enough to keep paying attention.

Closing ceremonies for the 36th Annual National Veterans Wheelchair Games are tomorrow night, July 2, at 6:00pm at the convention center. Anyone want to join us?