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The neighborly way in Northampton: Older people needing help connect with volunteers who provide it

  • Joel Spiro walks Wendy Newton's standard poodle, Abby, through the volunteer program, Northampton Neighbors, Thursday, March 1, 2018 in Northampton, Massachusetts. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROLINE O'CONNOR

  • Joel Spiro walks Wendy Newton's standard poodle, Abby, through the volunteer program, Northampton Neighbors. Newton sought help through the because back problems made it hard for her to walk Abby herself. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROLINE O'CONNOR

  • Joel Spiro walks Wendy Newton's standard poodle, Abby, through the volunteer program, Northampton Neighbors, Thursday, GAZETTE STAFF/CAROLINE O'CONNOR

  • Joel Spiro walks Wendy Newton's standard poodle, Abby, through the volunteer program, Northampton Neighbors, Thursday,ts. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROLINE O'CONNOR

  • Joel Spiro walks Wendy Newton's standard poodle, Abby, through the volunteer program, Northampton Neighbors. Newton sought help through the because back problems made it hard for her to walk Abby herself. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROLINE O'CONNOR

  • Joel Spiro walks Wendy Newton's standard poodle, Abby, as a volunteer through the organization, Northampton Neighbors. Newton turned to Northampton Neighbors for help because back problems made it hard for her to walk Abby herself. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROLINE O'CONNOR

  • Joel Spiro says walking Wendy Newton's dog not only gives Newton help she needs but it is a good excuse to get some exercise himself. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROLINE O'CONNOR

  • One of Northampton Neighbors’ goals is to be affordable and accessible to everyone, so despite a member’s ability to pay, the service is free, says Leigh Bailey, far left, president of the organization.

  • “This is a way not to pull people away from society and house them somewhere, but to keep them engaged with society,” says Celia Jeffries, left, a founding member of Northampton Neighbors.



Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Wendy Newton, 76, lives alone and is fiercely independent, but last March her persistently achy back became suddenly unbearable, and she could barely get out of bed to walk to the kitchen let alone take her poodle, Abbey, outside.

“What that injury did for me was remind me that I am not superhuman and it is possible to be helpless — even me,” she said.

And so she joined Northampton Neighbors, a nonprofit virtual retirement village that connects members, age 55 and older, to volunteers who assist with tasks that have become difficult or impossible for them. The goal is to help seniors remain in their homes and live independent, engaged lives.

Virtual retirement villages like these are sprouting up all over the country. Northampton’s version got started in November.

Newton found out about it through a friend, and now volunteer Joel Spiro, 81, walks Abbey every Thursday afternoon. He is just a five-minute bike ride away from Newton’s Northampton condo, so he doesn’t mind, he says.

“It is just half an hour and it means so much to the owner,” he said walking Abbey along the sidewalk on North Street on a recent Thursday afternoon. “It’s obviously a beautiful dog,” he said as he looked lovingly at the black poodle.

Spiro and Abbey maneuvered around puddles to a grassy patch near a bike path where the poodle, named from the jazz singer Abbey Lincoln, did her business.

“Not everyone has a nice backyard to let the dog out,” Spiro said. “It’s also good motivation to get a walk.”

Making connections

In just a few months, Northampton Neighbors already has 350 members with more than 50 volunteers to provide services for them. These range from providing rides — such as trips to doctors appointments or the grocery store — to more unusual requests like chopping wood or delivering a 12-foot Christmas tree.

The organization also helps older people to stay socially connected, its organizers say. Members have access to an electronic mailing list that they can use to connect with each other to plan social gatherings. They might organize potlucks or take a trip to a museum, for example. So far, there is already a political discussion group, a hiking group and a knitting circle said Leigh Bailey, Northampton Neighbors president and one of its founders.

“This is a way not to pull people away from society and house them somewhere, but to keep them engaged with society,” another founding member, Celia Jeffries, told the Gazette last year. 

Newton thinks of her membership in the group as an insurance policy for times when she might need a little extra help.

“More than anything I know that it will be there when I need it,” Newton said. “It’s a remarkable concept.”

Most virtual retirement communities like this one, that operate under the umbrella nonprofit organization Village to Village Network, based in St. Louis, Missouri, charge fees for membership. One of Northampton Neighbors’ goals, however, is to be affordable and accessible to everyone, so despite a member’s ability to pay, the service is free, Bailey said. Instead of charging fees, they’ve reached out to the community to ask for voluntary contributions, and they were surprised by the generosity, she said. “That is really sustaining us.”

So far, the group has raised just over $25,000 and they are still seeking donations. The organization needs at least $34,000 to maintain the operation annually, Bailey said. Its biggest expense is its part-time administrator.

Grassroots effort

Northampton Neighbors started as just an idea that grew out of Bailey’s book club. The members read “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in The End” by Atul Gawande, about end of life issues which includes a section mentioning the village movement.

In a grassroots effort, a group of nine volunteers came together to launch one of these virtual villages here. Over the last two years, they spread the word by holding public forums to gauge interest and determine what shape the organization should take. Response was positive, donations began to roll in and membership began to climb.

“When we began to see the membership grow  it  was a wonderful reflection of what we’ve done,” Bailey said. 

Zane Kotker, who like Newton found out about Northampton Neighbors through word of mouth, said that she sought assistance through the group when she had trouble logging in to her doctor’s office online patient portal.

A volunteer came to her house and quickly helped her troubleshoot until she had access to the website. So impressed with the service, she decided to become a volunteer herself, offering rides. “It’s terrific. It’s a solid idea,” she said. “...I live alone and I need to feel that there is some kind of community out there.”

All it takes to sign up is filling out a simple form online. So far, the group has fielded more than a 100 requests with only one going unfulfilled because of a scheduling issue, Bailey said.

Adele Paquin, the part-time administrator, works out of donated office space in the Northampton Senior Center fielding calls and requests that come through the membership portal online. A software system matches potential volunteers with requests, then Paquin calls each person to coordinate appointments. Northampton Neighbors asks that members give three days of lead time.

“The idea is for us to be able to accommodate as much as possible,” Bailey said. 

The only requirement is that the person asking for help be agile enough to get himself or herself into a vehicle since volunteers are not trained medical professionals.

To become a volunteer, an individual must fill out an application online, submit to a background check, and go through an hour training session. 

The plan is that for the first few years, Northampton Neighbors will serve Northampton residents only, then the group might consider creating satellite locations in neighboring communities, Bailey said.

 The board members are mostly busy with administration and making executive decisions, but when they can they also help by providing rides to those who need them. “It is a tremendous amount of work,” Bailey said. 

“It is just wonderfully gratifying and a bit surprising that we have done this so quickly.”

Lisa Spear can be reached at Lspear@gazettenet.com. 

How to connect

To learn more about Northampton Neighbors, to volunteer or become a member, visit http://www.northamptonneighbors.org or visit the Northampton Senior Center at 67 Conz Street.