Picture this: You’re home recovering from surgery. You’ve been able to manage most days, thanks to a family member who’s been staying with you to help with bigger tasks like cooking and laundry.

And then the light bulb over your kitchen sink goes out.

Your family member has already gone home. You don’t want to call them back for something so small, but you really need the light to see. You know you can’t change the bulb on your own. Who can you call?

Union County Neighbor to Neighbor was created so that you always have someone to call.

The membership-based organization helps Union County residents – particularly older residents – remain in their own homes with help from local volunteers. Volunteers help with service requests including household tasks, errands, outside projects, social visits, transportation and more.

“Our main goal and our mission is to help individuals age in place in their homes, combat social isolation and stay connected to their community,” said Tessa Fite, executive director of Union County Neighbor to Neighbor.

“We like to say we are gap-oriented: We’re not trying to take over what other non-profits or county service agencies are doing. We are trying to fill in the gaps where more traditional agencies can’t go. And, we’re able to do that because of the flexibility and skill sets of our volunteers,” Fite said.

“We like to say we are gap-oriented. We are trying to fill in the gaps where more traditional agencies can’t go.”

Tessa Fite, Union County Neighbor to Neighbor Executive Director

Made up of members who receive services and volunteers who fulfill those service requests, as well as a small-but-mighty staff, Union County Neighbor to Neighbor opened its doors in July of 2016. The organization has experienced incredible growth in the past five years, both in the amount of services requested and the number of volunteers willing to fill them.

“We are fortunate that Union County is very neighborly, and we’ve had great support from the community here,” Fite explained. “We provide a wide variety of services, and we’ve been able to meet really every need our members request with a volunteer. Ninety-nine percent of the time, our volunteers are our staff.”

The most common service requests that come in are often related to the season’s change, such as weeding, raking leaves and laying mulch. Volunteers also help with light housework like vacuuming or changing sheets.

“A lot of things we do are health and safety related which is, of course, very important. But we’re also trying to improve quality of life,” Fite explained. “The quality of life as people age is really important, and we can play a role in that. It’s really about facilitating those neighborly relationships.”

Combating social isolation with neighborly relationships

Loneliness and social isolation is a huge issue for older adults. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly one-fourth of adults aged 65 and older are considered to be socially isolated, which can put their health at risk.

For Union County Neighbor to Neighbor members, the relationship-building component is beneficial, especially because it can happen on their terms.

“What I’ve heard from some of our members is that they like being able to call in and make the request themselves. They don’t have to wait for a family member or friend to be available,” Fite explained. “It gives them autonomy.”

Volunteers also benefit from forming these relationships, as well as the flexible and personal nature of the work. Service Coordinator Chelsie Miller explained that volunteers can help out as much or as little as they want.

“We have a lot of individuals who are retired, so they have the time and energy and talents to be able to give back. It can be on their time,” Miller said. “They’re not committing to a certain schedule, they see my emails and they choose what they can help out with based on their schedule.”

“I’ve heard a lot of volunteers talk about the relationship building piece, they really like the one-on-one relationship, and it’s really been a blessing to the volunteer to develop those relationships with these members,” Fite added.

Five years of serving the community

Since opening their doors in July 2016, UCN2N has completed over 2450 service requests. That’s over 2450 requests for small, but important household tasks, from people who may not have anyone else to call.

For Fite, being able to continue to meet those needs – even as they’ve risen – is a huge accomplishment.

“We’ve been able to provide a lot more services that provide value for our members. I’ve really been proud that we have been able to make the member experience much better over the past five years,” she said.

The member experience has grown from simple service requests to include seasonal care packages, well-check phone calls, social events, newsletters and cards.

“It’s this whole picture of staying connected,” Fite explained. “It’s not just them reaching out for a service, we’re reaching out to the members and making sure that we’re connecting to them too.”

The impact of COVID-19

At a time when many people were feeling the loneliness of quarantine, Union County Neighbor to Neighbor stepped in. Fite and Miller strategized to create new ways to deliver services amid the pandemic, including short-term membership and volunteer opportunities, social memberships and proactive outreach to members through well-check phone calls. In the first five months of initiating these well-check calls, volunteers made 169 phone calls.

The pandemic also created a surge in new service requests from members. The organization’s services increased by 35 percent in 2020, and have continued to rise since then.

The phone calls have helped more members get the services they need, and have also been critical for strengthening relationships during a difficult time. Miller recalled a volunteer who found out it was a member’s birthday during one of these well-check phone calls, so she decided to drive a balloon and a birthday card over to her house to help her feel special.

“That’s just one example of things that are naturally happening because they’re forming these relationships by calling once a month,” Miller said. “The volunteers love it, and the members love it.”

Plans for the future

As Union County Neighbor to Neighbor looks toward the future, Fite and Miller hope to build on the momentum of the past five years and continue to deliver more services to the community.

The organization plans to create partnerships with local skilled nursing facilities, assisted living facilities and Union County Senior Services to broaden membership opportunities and ease the transition back home for individuals. The group is also providing LifeBio journals so members can record their memories and life stories – providing a meaningful activity for members and a keepsake for families.

Fite explains that the group’s past accomplishments and hopes for the future wouldn’t be possible without the incredible support Union County Neighbor to Neighbor has received from the community.

“We are so grateful for the members who have entrusted us with their care, and the volunteers who are willing to make things happen,” Fite said. “Without them, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do.”