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Hidden Difficulties of Serving Small-town Seniors

Holly Daniels | Published on 3/2/2022

Holly Daniels, MAVA's Greater MN Program Manager, recently interviewed Dana Thewis, the Volunteer Coordinator at Community Partners in Two Harbors, MN. 

Community Partners' main programs include transportation and Meals on Wheels, and their favorite MAVA benefit is the networking opportunities.


You said that internet connectivity can be an issue for you up in Two Harbors. Are there other things that are difficult about volunteerism for you, in a small town, that folks in cities would not know about?

The distance. So like, when our volunteers give rides to people, they have to be in the same vehicle for an hour and a half. It’s typically 40-45 minutes one way, to Duluth to go to appointments.

Some of our participants are pretty vocal on their political beliefs. Some volunteer drivers have had to say, “no, no, we're not going there. Yep, you have your opinion, and that's great. But we don't have to talk about that right now.” 

Also, we don’t have a store in town where you can order groceries and they will bring your food to your car. So if you need food, you have to be able to go to the store yourself to get it. Or have a volunteer go for you. And you can’t get certain things here. Like for diapers, I can’t get them in town. I have to go to Duluth to buy diapers. We have a participant who gets cotton balls every week on his grocery list, for doing his blood sugar checks. The grocery store here has been out of them numerous times. Our volunteer is like “He needs those!” So he goes to the hardware store and buys them with his own money. One of our participants wanted Folgers Coffee. They were out of Folgers Coffee at the grocery store!

There's nowhere in town to get rapid COVID tests. We had a participant call this week who needed a ride to get tested for COVID. But we can’t send a volunteer to drive somebody who thinks they have COVID. So if you don’t drive you don’t have other options. You can’t call an Uber. We don’t have that here.

There aren’t enough people who offer snow removal, so I talked to one of the Meals on Wheels volunteers and he said Monday he was walking through two-foot snowdrifts to try to get the food to people's houses. But if there isn’t Meals on Wheels…I don’t know what people would do. There’s a Domino’s in town, but beyond that, you can’t order food delivered to your home.

In the pandemic, I know it’s been tough to keep offering services to seniors, especially having immunocompromised staff and volunteers, not to mention the clients themselves — what has been encouraging to you in the middle of it?

To fight isolation, we started a program called Friendly Phone Calls. 

Now, there are a lot of people that move to small towns or rural areas because they don't want to interact with people. They want five miles between them and their neighbor. And seeing some of those folks who were much more staunchly independent, who really resisted our help, all of a sudden saying, “Oh, maybe it would be nice to get a friendly phone call. Can you call me once a month and check in? Not too often, but like, a monthly check-in call? Fantastic.”

That was encouraging. When people were so starved for interaction, it was like, “We can talk about the wind, and it's, you know, just being able to talk to another person. In that, we can recognize our need for each other — recognize that as much as we want to be able to just live life on our own and not need others. It's just not the case. 

We had volunteers really step in to fill the gaps for each other, especially when family was further away. They were really willing to get involved in people’s lives in a personal way. And that has been really cool to watch.

What would you say is the biggest value of MAVA to you?

All of the networking opportunities. Being able to meet with other volunteer coordinators and cross-check our policies in the pandemic. Being able to ask the group, “What’s the best way to send out a volunteer newsletter?” And it was so validating that no matter where people were across Minnesota, they were running into the same issue and grappling with the same problems as we were.