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Northland Shepherd’s Center lends a helping hand for older adults

Fern Hibbert, 93, gets a hug from volunteer Ida May Willhaus during their Learning & Laughter Club meeting at The Shepherd's Center of the Northland. The agency provides services to older adults in Clay and Platte counties.
Fern Hibbert, 93, gets a hug from volunteer Ida May Willhaus during their Learning & Laughter Club meeting at The Shepherd's Center of the Northland. The agency provides services to older adults in Clay and Platte counties. The Kansas City Star

Wednesday is “Mail Drop” day at Northland Shepherd’s Center this week.

Nineteen seniors attending the Learning & Laughter program will bring with them letters they’ve written to their St. Patrick’s School fifth-grade pen pals.

The students and the seniors are exchanging correspondence in Pens Across the Northland, a program introduced this year as part of the center’s 25th anniversary celebration.

“The seniors have a wealth of background to make history come alive for students,” said Judy Rychlewski, a volunteer who coordinates the pen pal program.

Appreciating what older adults have to offer and providing them with the assistance they need are what Northland Shepherd’s Center is all about. Since its founding in 1990, the center has offered programs and services to help older adults lead active lives, remain as self-sufficient as possible and stay in their homes. The center is in the lower level of Antioch Community Church.

The pen pal program gives seniors a chance to write about their experiences and memories, and provides a kind of grandparent presence in the lives of the youths. This week’s letters are the second ones the seniors have written to the St. Patrick’s students.

In January, John Ruppert, 91, of Gladstone sent his pen pal photos of himself growing up on a farm north of Buffalo, N.Y.; graduating from high school in 1942; wearing a uniform for flying in an open airplane in World War II; and other settings from his past. Ruppert said he wanted to include the pictures because he thought his young correspondent “probably had not seen clothes like that.”

Ruppert and other seniors eagerly opened letters from their students at the Feb. 11 program. On May 13, the program ends with the pen pals meeting each other.

“We’re hoping to expand the program,” said Rebecca Gordon, who has been with the center for 22 years and has served as executive director since 2001. “Older adults have so much to give and so many stories to share about what they’ve gone through.”

The Northland Shepherd’s Center is operated as an interfaith nonprofit organization. It is one of about 70 nationwide. The concept for the center originated in Kansas City in 1972 with Elbert Cole, a United Methodist minister.

Cole chose the name based on the reference in the 23rd Psalm to the Lord as a shepherd.

The Northland center started with three programs in 1990: transportation, minor home repairs and enrichment classes. As the number of older residents has grown in the Northland, more people have needed the center’s assistance and a greater variety of services has been required.

“At least 80 percent of our clients are 75 and older,” Gordon said. “Many have outlived their savings, their friends and in many instances their family.”

Programs and services now number nearly 25 and include personal shopping for homebound older adults, grief and loss support, exercise classes and caregiver support.

Some 30,000 individuals have used services or participated in programs since 1990. Most of these used several services or enrolled in more than one program. In 2010, for example, the center served 2,368 individual clients. Yet records show that the total usage of all programs and services that year was 23,196.

Demand for services has increased so much, in fact, that the center has outgrown its headquarters in the church at 4805 N.E. Antioch Road in Kansas City. Last year Gordon and two other administrative staff members moved to an office at 2601 Kendallwood Parkway. The client services staff remains in the church.

In a typical month, the center fields 3,000 to 4,000 calls from individuals seeking information, registering for programs, signing up for rides, scheduling appointments to determine their eligibility for benefits and assistance, and in other ways requesting help with the chores and challenges of growing older in their homes.

And every morning, 45 individuals call and one man emails the center to report on their well-being.

“If we haven’t heard by noon, we call them,” said Terry Tipton, program director and in-home services coordinator.

If there is still no answer, then a staff member calls the phone numbers listed for the individual’s emergency contacts. If the individual’s status is still in question, the next step is to call the police and ask them to check on the person.

Some clients call the center five days a week; some call seven days a week. Volunteers usually handle the weekend and holiday checking.

Volunteers play an important role in the success of the center. In the last 25 years, volunteers logged more than 430,000 hours of service.

In 2002, Beverly Whitaker of Kansas City, North, received a national volunteer award from Shepherd’s Centers of America. She and her husband have been volunteers with the Northland Shepherd’s Center for many years.

In 2011, the Whitakers needed the center’s Minor Home Repair service to make their home more accessible and comfortable for Bob Whitaker. He had had emergency surgery for a blockage in an intestine, and later in 2011 he required surgery for a hernia repair. He could no longer move with ease and was not stable on his feet.

“My home health aide and the Shepherd’s Center volunteer assessed what our needs were,’’ said Bob Whitaker, 81.

The volunteer installed six grab bars in bathrooms and two handrails on the staircase that leads to the large family room in the basement.

The most important handrail, however, is the one installed outside the house near the front door, Bob Whitaker said. The grab bar allows Whitaker to pull himself up a steep step leading to the door.

The improvements to their home have given the Whitakers “freedom and independence,” said Beverly Whitaker, 76. “This has enabled us to stay in our home with access to every room in the house.”

With less effort and energy required now to move around in their home of 40 years, Bob Whitaker is able to get out and do some of the volunteering he enjoys so much, his wife said. She is active in a caregivers’ support club at the center.

“I love that the Northland Shepherd’s Center is where an active senior can engage in lifelong learning, be a volunteer to a frail older adult and then have peace of mind that a trusted agency will be there for them as their own health changes,” said Tina Uridge, executive director of Clay County Senior Services, an agency funded by county taxes that strives to improve the quality of life for Clay County residents 60 and older.

Since 2005, Clay County Senior Services has provided funds for many of the center’s programs.

“We refer our callers to the center on a daily basis, and we know that they will be well-served,” Uridge said.

One program that has become increasingly popular, BreakTime Club, serves both the needs of caregivers and of their loved ones. BreakTime Club meets twice a week and allows caregivers to leave their loved ones in a safe environment with a professional staff for a half day. The club meets on Tuesdays at the center and on Thursdays at a church in Liberty.

Christine Snedden, 46, of Kearney, said her mother-in-law began attending BreakTime Club about a year ago. The club provides her mother-in-lawan outing, and it allows her father-in-law some relief from the day-to-day demands of caregiving.

“The biggest benefit is that it gives him six hours every Tuesday and Thursday for some quiet time,” Snedden said.

A center volunteer provides rides to the club.

Transportation, the service most in demand, is a pressing need for Northlanders like Joan Roberts, 89, of Gladstone, who no longer drives.

“If it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t be in this house,” Roberts said about the volunteer she met at a Learning & Laughter session.

Learning & Laughter meets from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on the second and fourth Wednesdays of every month. Participants enjoy entertainment, classes, camaraderie, exercises, crafts and lunch. This week’s Learning & Laughter includes music therapy and an interactive program about how weather and climate change affect mental and physical health.

Roberts has been a regular at the meetings since 2005.

“It gives me an opportunity to get out of the house, and it’s a meal that I don’t have to cook,” she said.

Volunteers provide individuals with rides to and from medical appointments and financial institutions. In 2014, volunteers made 3,982 such trips.

The center also provides a van to take groups of shoppers to the grocery story twice monthly and to a discount department store once a month.

Besides helping older adults who need rides, the center relies on volunteers to be “our eyes,” Tipton said. “Volunteers see potential problems — if a house is dark or if there appears to be a shortage of food.”

A volunteer noticed an orange extension cord outdoors between two houses, for example, and the center learned that the client couldn’t afford to keep the lights and heat on. A next-door neighbor was helping out with electricity. The Northland Shepherd’s Center then worked with the client to find assistance to pay utility bills.

Currently, the center has 205 volunteers.

“We are local seniors supporting local seniors,” said Brenda Dunn, volunteer coordinator.

Dunn has seen age and health issues catch up with volunteers who find they must retire from volunteering and turn to the center for help themselves. To meet the needs of baby boomers, 500 volunteers will be needed by 2018, Dunn said.

“Baby boomers are a generation that does not have family close by,” she said.

Dunn urges members of the post-war generation to become involved with the center now as volunteers before they need its services.

Dunn believes so strongly in the value of volunteering that she uses her day off from work to take center clients to the grocery store, food pantry and to doctor’s appointments.

“I love my Fridays off,” she said.

Dunn is one of 12 center employees. Three are full-time employees and nine work part time.

Nearly half of the center’s 2013 operating budget of $378,860 came from grants. Many grants were given to support specific programs.

Clay County Sernior Services, for example, funds Health and Benefits Check Up — an online screening process that helps locate government and private sources for assistance with prescription drugs, energy bills, legal services, housing and other needs.

Since the Health and Benefits Check Up started in September 2010, Clay County residents who have requested screenings have received more than $1 million in financial and other assistance.

The service is free.

The center will celebrate its 25th anniversary with fund-raising events throughout the year. The first is “Jazz Celebrates” on April 17.

Fund raising is necessary because none of the programs or services generates revenue. Most are free, but donations to cover costs are encouraged. For example, a donation of $5 is suggested when riders ask about helping out with expenses for transportation services.

“No one is ever denied a program or a service due to an inability to pay,” Gordon said.

Northland Shepherd’s Center

Hours: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday

Address: 4805 N.E. Antioch Road, Suite 9, Kansas City, MO 64119

Phone: 816-452-4536

Website: www.northlandsc.org

Jazz Celebrates

When: 6 to 10 p.m. April 17

Where: Argosy Casino Hotel & Spa in Riverside

What: Fundraising event includes dinner, entertainment, and live and silent auctions.

Tickets and more: Tickets are $80. For information about donating to the auctions or sponsoring the event, call 816-452-4536. The deadline for auction donations and sponsorships is March 27.