Rooted in Care:
Volunteers find joy and purpose in Legacy Corps

Eye on LSSI, Winter 2012 (Download PDF Download PDF of entire publication)

Diane Wolfe (foreground) is a stroke survivor and helping residents in the dementia care unit is part of “getting back to being herself.” Diane Blanks (left) focuses on building residents’ self-esteem. “You can still do a lot and learn something new,” she tells them. Credit: Lloyd DeGraneLegacy Corps volunteer Diane Blanks listens carefully as she helps Margaret, a resident, to gently transfer an African violet plant to a new container. “Get as much dirt off the roots as you can,” Margaret instructs Blanks. “Don’t worry about breaking off some of the leaves. I used to have a house full of these.” As Margaret reminisces, Blanks smiles warmly, obviously enjoying their shared mission at a sunny table inside St. Matthew Center for Health, a long-term care nursing facility and program of Lutheran Social Services of Illinois (LSSI) in Park Ridge.

Blanks and fellow Legacy Corps volunteer Diane Wolfe make slow progress today along St. Matthew’s hallways. The two Dianes pause at the beauty shop and the dining room to chat with one person after another.

The two women volunteer their time at St. Matthew, assisting residents with activities and combating loneliness with their steady companionship. As Legacy Corps volunteers, they also provide free, non-medical care for caregivers and clients who still live in their own homes in the Chicago area. For up to four hours a week per client, they provide much-needed breaks for caregivers. They run errands, shop for groceries, take clients to doctor’s appointments and more. Over the years, their dedication and commitment to helping people with such everyday tasks has made life better for dozens of seniors.

“With clients, you talk a little bit, but you have to listen,” Blanks says. She listened while helping one community client to make good nutritional choices after his wife died. She discovered he was lactose-intolerant. “He’d had all of this [stomach] discomfort, and it was something nobody’d thought of before,” she says.   

Blanks, Wolfe and the 12 other volunteers based out of St. Matthew together serve 55 clients. They are among 66 Legacy Corps volunteers who work in Illinois through Lutheran Social Services of Illinois. LSSI has been involved in Legacy Corps, a national program funded through AmeriCorps, for the last decade. The funding is now in jeopardy, but LSSI is committed to continuing the volunteer respite care program in some capacity and is exploring other funding options.

But Legacy Corps doesn’t only help seniors. “Caregivers who utilize our Legacy Corps volunteers show an increased quality of life and reduced stress,” says Kelly Fitzgerald, director of LSSI’s Legacy Corps program. “A little break during the week really helps them.”

It also helps volunteers, 75 percent of whom are age 50 or older, says St. Matthew’s Legacy Corps site supervisor, Andrea Koch, who also is as the facility’s art therapist. “We’re hoping to keep the Baby Boomers active and giving back to their community,” Koch explains.

‘My people’

At the center, the two Dianes open a huge bag and pull out pink costume fairy wings, a supply of art paper, fabric, one residents’ favorite brand of cookies and a variety of small, interesting objects that Koch places in art bins in the art room. The center is full of stunning artworks residents have created, from charcoal drawings and vibrant paintings to mixed media artworks and even museum-quality dolls that appear to be made of papier-mache.

“Is it okay if I go check on my people?” asks Wolfe, a member of St. Paul Lutheran Church on Canfield in Chicago. She walks down the hall to talk with a variety of people in St. Matthew’s Faith Place, a specialized dementia and Alzheimer’s unit. They greet her happily. Wolfe and Koch chuckle over one patient’s greeting for Wolfe: “Oh, good, someone’s here who knows what they’re doing!”

Legacy Corps volunteers Diane Blanks (left) and Diane Wolfe listen as they help Margaret, a resident, transfer an African violet plant to a new container. “Get as much dirt off the roots as you can,” Margaret says. “I used to have a house full of these.” Credit: Lloyd DeGraneWolfe inspires her, Koch shares quietly while the other woman is busy. “We always have a hard time finding volunteers for our dementia care unit, because there’s not the same kind of ‘payback’ as with people who have different cognitive abilities. It can be pretty intense. But Diane [Wolfe] throws her whole heart into it. She’s a stroke survivor, and part of her process of getting back to being herself has been helping others.”

According to Wolfe, two of her four clients living in the community have Alzheimer’s as well. “I like working with people who have Alzheimer’s,” she says. “It’s really comforting to me, because they need my help. They’re always so grateful and appreciative.” 

The sweet taste of self-esteem

Blanks, in her second term of Legacy Corps service, helps Koch co-lead monthly training meetings for Legacy Corps volunteers. “And people here associate her with ice cream. That’s a definite thumbs-up,” Wolfe says with a laugh. Every Thursday, Blanks is the ice cream lady, serving residents their favorite flavors in the center’s ice cream parlor.

“Yes, I tell folks what kinds of flavors we have … sometimes over and over again,” Blanks says with a smile. “And that’s great. I think most folks like the ‘caramel collision’ best, but Pastor says I put too much of a hard-sell on it.”  

And it’s not just ice cream, but the sweet taste of self-esteem many clients long to have. “Your self-esteem at 95 is just as important as it is at 16,” Blanks says. A member of Messiah Lutheran Church in Park Ridge, Blanks explains that she drives one 95-year-old community client to the library and to visit his relatives. She tells him, “So you can’t drive anymore, yeah. But what can you do? Your synapses may slow down, but those neurons are still going. You can still do a lot, and learn something new.”  

And that kind of positive encouragement is exactly how committed Legacy Corps volunteers serve up not only ice cream, but health and growth for the lives of seniors and their loved ones.

About LSSI’s Legacy Corps

For 10 years, Lutheran Social Services of Illinois (LSSI) has been able to provide free respite care to aging adults and their caregivers through caring volunteers, aged 50 years and older. The Legacy Corps for Health and Independent Living program started with approximately 35 volunteers in Winnebago/Boone County. Today, those volunteers number 66, and they work out of nine Illinois counties: Boone, Cook, Fulton Jo Daviess, McHenry, Peoria, Rock Island, Stephensen, and Winnebago.

Legacy Corps volunteers — who serve for one to three years — provide in-home respite care to older adults to enable them to remain independent in their own communities. Services may include preparing light meals or snacks, providing companionship, driving the individual to doctor appointments or shopping. They do not provide any medical or therapeutic services. And just as importantly, Legacy Corps volunteers give caregivers time off from taking care of their loved one, so they can run errands, see to other responsibilities or just relax.

Legacy Corps is funded by AmeriCorps, which is a federally funded program. There are only 18 Legacy Corps programs in nine states. For more information on how to volunteer or to receive respite care services, contact Kelly Fitzgerald, director, at 847/390-1432 or at