Making Contact

In a detached world, neighborhood orgs offer assistance with a personal touch

As Tucson recovers from the tragic violence of Jan. 8, there's a good chance our shared grief will eventually devolve into the more routine detachment from our neighbors and city.

It's a disconnect that many in our community know all too well. For the elderly, the disabled and others who face a monumental hurdle in simply leaving their homes, that isolation can become a daily affair. But today, a growing coalition of neighborhoods is working to resurrect the notion of community—giving new life to the idea that building ties simply means lending a hand.

It may be a morning phone call to check on someone's well-being. It may be a ride to the doctor's office and grocery store. Or it may be a simple five-minute visit, just to let someone know they haven't been forgotten.

There are deeper advantages as well; this safety net allows seniors to remain in their homes for as long as possible, under an increasingly popular concept known as "aging in place."

There's also a good reason this trend is growing. Just ask Madelyn Bufe. At 94, she still treasures the independence of living in her own home. But that means she needs transportation and help with minor household tasks. Enter the Lend a Hand Senior Outreach program. Volunteers with the group, which includes folks from several Tucson neighborhoods and organizations, regularly chauffer seniors like Bufe around town.

"They'll take you to the library; they'll take you to the beauty shop, to the grocery store—anywhere you want to go, they never turn you down," she says.

She also enjoys the security of knowing someone is keeping tabs on you. "They come to visit you to see what your home environment is like and what you need. They're very thorough. I feel like they're my personal friends."

Lend a Hand began in 2006 with a $13,000 grant from the Southern Arizona Compassion Initiative. The initiative is a partnership of community organizations which in turn won a three-year, U.S. Department of Health grant to strengthen local service programs. One of those programs is the Neighbors Care Alliance; coordinated by the Pima County on Aging, it includes a range of neighborhood services such as Lend a Hand.

Locally, the Neighbors Care Alliance provides services ranging from rides to the doctor and meal preparation, to minor home repairs and light yard work—all with an underlying goal of strengthening local communities.

According to Linda Drew, chair of the Lend a Hand board of directors, the tail wagged the dog. "Neighbors were already looking after neighbors in several of the neighborhoods here," she says. "We just thought it would help to have it more organized, and have more support."

Beyond the nuts and bolts of basic assistance, the program imbues deep strains of mutual responsibility, says Drew. "People need to look out for each other. In smaller towns, it seems to be easier to do that, because you don't have any place else to go."

It becomes a bigger challenge in neighborhoods such as her own Hedrick Acres, where nearly two-thirds of the properties are rented. "That's a lot of people coming and going, and it is very easy to lose track of people, to have them just kind of disappear."

In austere times, there's another benefit to neighborhood programs: They offer services otherwise falling to government agencies. "We are coming in and saving the government a lot of money, whether they recognize it or not," says Gladys Miller, outreach coordinator for the Neighbors Care Alliance. "It's not as if they've approached us to take over services. We've just done it.

If not for Neighbors Care, clients "would have to approach some government-subsidized agencies for assistance, such as the Pima Health System and things like that. They would have to use subsidized transportation, and that's all big bucks."

On the neighborhood level, getting from point A to point B is also much more personal. "With volunteers doing the driving, you're not just getting transported, but you're also getting socialization, relationship-building and community-building," says Miller.

Tucson isn't alone in recognizing the benefits of grassroots assistance organizations. A quick Web search turns up scores of similar efforts across the country, from Brooklyn and Maui to Teton County, Mont. But since these groups tend to span several nonprofit categories, it's difficult to track their specific numbers through traditional methods such as tax records. Still, there's no doubt that this movement is on the rise, says Katie Roeger, a research associate with the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. "Right now, there's a huge pressure on getting back to grassroots community initiatives. We're working with a lot of communities that want to be more connected, and get people more involved."

She says it's tough to decipher all of the factors driving this trend. "But what I can tell you is that there's certainly interest within communities, from individual members to foundations and nonprofit organizations, that want to work toward more community involvement and the common good."

In recent months, downtown's Armory Park Neighborhood (where I live) has undertaken the rather complex effort of creating its own assistance program. Among those spearheading the effort is neighborhood board member George Mairs.

He calls it a natural progression. "This is nothing brilliant or original. ... You have a family member or a friend who is at home either temporarily or because they're elderly or disabled. Or maybe they've just come out of the hospital, and they're have a heck of a time staying at home, because they can't see their doctor; they can't get their prescriptions; they can't get food. The primary need for somebody like that is to transport them, or bring them in what they need, so they can stay at home and not have to be in the hospital or a nursing home."

When those people don't have the support of family or friends, neighbors need to step in. Consider a man Mairs recently met who'd just come out of the hospital. "He was in cancer treatment and was stuck in his apartment. He was a temporarily house-bound person. ... There's absolutely a need for people right here in the neighborhood to help."

Madelyn Bufe has a name for such helpers: "They're true good Samaritans," she says. "They help where they're needed and do it so graciously. It's a wonderful thing for our community."

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