Making sure there’s someone to talk to, just one call away
Candice Carter can tell you with absolute certainty that the little things can make a big difference.
“The small things really do add up,” she said. “That’s something I see every day.”
Carter is the executive director of Na Hoaloha, a nonprofit organization that pairs volunteers with seniors or people with disabilities ages 18 to 60 who need assistance with daily tasks — or just a friend to talk to.
Na Hoaloha (“loving friends”) was established in 1996 by Sister Roselani Enomoto, who rallied several faith-based groups to help Maui’s seniors remain independent and out of long-term institutional care.
“Our No. 1 goal is to provide our kupuna with what they need so they can stay in the community,” Carter explained.
When the organization opened its doors 20 years ago, it had 57 clients and 35 volunteers on its roster. Today, Na Hoaloha’s four-person staff oversees 244 active volunteers who lend a helping hand to more than 650 clients on Maui, Molokai and Lanai — at no cost to the client. Of the 650 participants, roughly 82 percent are 65 or older, 38 percent live alone and approximately 41 percent are low income.
But all of them have one thing in common: They are at high risk for social isolation.
A solitary life can take a toll on a person’s mental and physical health, which is why Na Hoaloha’s services are so vital — and now more than ever. This year, the organization’s client intake increased by a staggering 60 percent. It’s a trend that Carter says will continue, as Hawaii tops the nation in growth of people over 85 years of age.
Even so, the organization does not have a waitlist, and it will not deny or reduce its services. All services are provided by volunteers, which makes Na Hoaloha the only organization of its kind in Hawaii, Carter said.
Those services include “friendly visits” (a volunteer visits a client on a regular basis) and door-to-door escort transportation.
“Our transportation volunteers take kupuna to their doctor’s appointments, go shopping with them or help them run errands,” Carter said. “Sometimes, they have meals together, too.”
The objective, she said, is to help frail elders stay engaged, live independently and remain at home as long as possible.
There’s also a telephone reassurance program, which offers something many people take for granted: a phone call from a friend. But for homebound seniors or people with disabilities, a simple phone call may be the brightest spot in their day. Telephone assurance volunteers call once or twice a day to check in, offer medication reminders or just chat for a while.
“These are things a lot of us don’t think about,” Carter said. “But for those who live alone, it can make a big difference.”
This year, Na Hoaloha added a falls prevention volunteer program and an in-home respite training program (which provides around-the-clock caregivers with much-needed intervals of rest) to its list of services.
“We stay on top of the research so we can identify the priority issues that impact seniors’ quality of life,” Carter said.
Without question, Na Hoaloha’s volunteers are the backbone of the organization. “We are so fortunate to have so many dedicated and compassionate volunteers,” Carter said. “We couldn’t do it without them.”
Ask any of the Na Hoaloha volunteers and it’s likely they’ll tell you this is more than just a community service project — it’s an investment in enduring friendship.
“Many of our volunteers cared for their parents or grandparents at one point,” said Judy Guajardo, Na Hoaloha’s volunteer coordinator. “They know how important it is to reach out and help someone.”
Volunteers and clients are carefully matched according to geography, personality and shared interests.
“We also ask our clients: ‘What is one simple thing you’d like to have for yourself?’ ” Guajardo explained. “We almost always make that thing happen. That’s why I never have a bad day at work.”
As for who derives more joy — the client or the volunteer — well, sometimes it’s hard to tell. Na Hoaloha has many longtime volunteers; some have been with the organization since its inception two decades ago.
“Our volunteers really love what they do. They make a difference in the quality of life for Maui’s kupuna every day,” Carter said. “That’s why this organization is so special. . . . There would be a lot of loneliness if we weren’t around.”
For more information about Na Hoaloha or to learn more about volunteer opportunities or the organization’s “Sponsor a Kupuna” program, visit www.nahoaloha.org.