‘… Find Me a Place to Volunteer’

Eye on LSSI, Fall 2008 (Download PDF Download PDF of entire publication)

As part of her participation in D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) at Gemini Junior High School, 12-year-old Patricia Schwed of Niles had to earn community service hours. A friend suggested volunteering at a nursing home, but Patricia – and her mom Karol – were having a hard time connecting with one. One Saturday, Patricia went to her mom and said, “Mom, you HAVE to find me a place to volunteer.”

Karol called several nursing homes that she found listed in the Yellow Pages, but none were able to help her — until she called St. Matthew Center for Health in Park Ridge, a program of Lutheran Social Services of Illinois (LSSI), also affectionately known as “St. Matt’s.”  Kelly Fitzgerald, assistant administrator and activities director, said Patricia could help with bingo, which residents play on Saturday afternoons.

Patricia only needed to do three weeks of community service, but a year and a half later she — as well as her mom and brother Matthew — faithfully volunteer at the Saturday afternoon bingo session at St. Matt’s.

“Once we started, we liked it and kept coming,” says Karol, who notes that Matthew originally came by default when she brought Patricia. Now, he enjoys volunteering as much as his sister.

She says, “[The people at St. Matt’s] are the nicest people … the staff, the residents. The kids really look forward to coming. The residents are kind of like surrogate grandparents,” she notes. “They all get a kick out of the kids, and they like it when the kids do the calling [of the numbers for bingo].”

On a recent Saturday, Matthew serves as technical troubleshooter, making sure the sound system and microphone that he and his sister use is in working order. A dozen or so residents are present for this week’s session, sitting at the small tables in St. Matt’s dining room. Once the bingo cards and poker chips have been handed out, Patricia — and then Matthew — take turns calling out the numbers. And while one sibling is calling numbers, the other is helping one or two of the residents who need assistance to place the chips on their cards.

The residents are intent on the game, calling out when they miss hearing a number. They help each other, too, placing the red or blue chips on the proper square on the bingo card. When they win, the residents receive “bingo bucks,” which they can use to buy items and gifts at the St. Matthew store.

This weekend, there is just Karol and the two kids helping with bingo. Sometimes, though, friends of Patricia and Matthew accompany them, helping the residents play bingo. Karol believes that this is a good way for the kids to meet the seniors who live at St. Matt’s.

Last year, the daughter of one of the residents nominated Patricia and Matthew for WGN Radio’s “Kid of the Week.” This year, St. Matthew nominated the trio for the Niles Citizen of the Year award. Patricia, her mom says, doesn’t understand what the fuss is about. “We just do this,” Patricia says.

Patricia says she likes the stories that the residents tell after playing bingo and “hearing them happy when they win bingo.” She adds that Buzzy, one of the residents, “talks about the Civil War and World War I, and it’s interesting.”

The residents play several rounds of bingo, including some special variations.  Usually, each game has three to four winners. Afterwards, the kids gather the bingo cards and poker chips, and then help with serving refreshments — cookies, juice and coffee.

Finally, the kids also help residents back to their rooms, and Patricia takes time to greet Daisy, the facility dog, before the Schweds leave.