South Whidbey at Home; non-profit brings volunteers, members together

Though they’ve only known each other for a short while, you might mistake Janice O’Mahony and Brad Walker as lifelong friends.

The pair were connected through South Whidbey at Home, a membership-based nonprofit which opened its doors in July and is dedicated to helping South Whidbey residents ages 55 and up age in place and stay active in the community. It does so by providing volunteer assistance, social activities and access to trusted businesses in the community to help with their needs.

O’Mahony, a 69-year-old Bayview resident, is a volunteer and board member with the organization, while 74-year-old Walker is a member who is disabled. Walker said one of the gifts of South Whidbey at Home is a seemingly pre-made connection between members and volunteers. After a first meeting, friendships can form.

“Even before you meet somebody, you know they’re one of yours,” Walker said. “Then the question comes: Which one are you? How do we connect?”

Walker, a Vietnam veteran and former hospital administrator, has had eight brain surgeries and is blind. Tasks that may seem ordinary to the average person are particularly difficult for Walker.

That’s where O’Mahony comes in.

On Thursday morning, O’Mahony picked Walker up from his Bayview home in her grey Toyota Prius and drove him through curvy backroads that led to Langley, where he was scheduled to attend a meeting at Langley Healing Circles. Along the way, they discussed various aspects of life, from mortality to the nature of friendships.

When they arrived at their destination, O’Mahony helped Walker out of the passenger side of the vehicle and guided him to the door. She returned an hour and a half later to take him home.

“I really believe in this,” O’Mahony said. “I think it’s going to make a huge difference.”

O’Mahony, a retired criminal justice analyst, is one of around 80 volunteers with the organization. It currently serves over 50 households.

“I know that we’re really pleased that we’re off to a good start,” said Lynn Willeford, board president of South Whidbey at Home.

It all starts at the organization’s Freeland office, where volunteers like Melissa Lebo and Jo Ann Buff operate a computer system that keeps a registry of members and coordinates assistance by volunteers and professional services. Lebo and Buff field calls from members who submit requests for services. Then, the call center contacts volunteers either by phone or email to see which activities they can fulfill.

When Lebo starts her day at the call center, she can view a daily calendar of what services are being provided and the requests coming in.

“People will call and say, ‘I broke my shoulder and I really need somebody to help me put my groceries away,’ ” Lebo said. “Then we do what’s called a service request. We can filter all the volunteers as to what they would like to do. Some people want to do household help, some people just want to drive. Some people are saints. They’ll do anything. They’ll scythe a three-foot lawn and then mow it.”

O’Mahony said she signed up to be a driver, social companion and can help members organize various activities or task. She said that while she’s been a driver and a helper, she is yet to be a social companion. O’Mahony likened it to a friendly date and that she is especially eager to help those who may be socially isolated.

“I’m dying to do that,” O’Mahony said. “It’s an awesome idea.”

O’Mahony volunteers to help the community’s older residents survive and thrive together.

“They are living in a tough environment for an older person; they’ve got ferries, they’ve got rural environment and there’s not a lot of transit.

“The people who choose to hunker down and be here, I really admire them,” she added.

For Walker, the organization provides an opportunity for senior citizens to rejoin the community amidst a society that he feels tends to cast older people to the wayside. In doing so, they can share knowledge amongst each other and younger generations.

“It’s the perfect opportunity for elderly people to become elders again,” Walker said.

South Whidbey at Home has two types of membership: full and supporting. Both cost $240.

For additional details, visit swathome.org, email callmanager@swathome.org or call 360-331-1971.