In the fall of 1995, Maggie Davis of Blue Hill, Maine volunteered for two weeks at a free-of-charge residential center for the terminally ill in North Carolina. Sparked by that experience, Maggie and several others created Neighborcare—a volunteer, free-of-charge-to-all, independent group-work project, which continues to thrive in the thirteen towns on the Blue Hill peninsula. Neighborcare-inspired projects are now blooming in other areas of Maine as well as in other states. Except for basic records kept simply on one computer, the Blue Hill project has evolved, happily, into a non-paperwork,‘non-sign up’ model. Anyone expressing support for what we do, and asking/agreeing to receive the Neighborcare newsletter, at once is within our fold.
Neighborcare’s purpose is to serve lonely, ill, dying, incapacitated neighbors in their efforts to live their lives to their fullest capacity, and/or to find resources that support this purpose.
In late summer, 1995, I saw an article in an obscure newsletter telling of a free-of-charge, volunteer-run, unlicensed center for the terminally ill in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. I was touched by what I read of the group’s self-reliance and spirit, which seemed so in tune with the publishing and writing I was doing to celebrate an all-embracing kinship vision. I sent down, as gifts, books I’d written which reflect this vision. The folks in Winston-Salem sent me a video PBS had made, featuring their project. “C’mon down!” they said. In a few weeks I was headed from my cabin in the woods to North Carolina for a fourteen day, 60hr/wk, volunteer vacation.
I traveled so far to volunteer because my hunch was I’d be bringing back home a vital spark of what I experienced in North Carolina. Before I left, I asked a co-worker to mail out, while I was away, an invitation to a gathering at the concert café my husband and I had opened years before. In the letter, I said where I was going. I explained that though I didn’t know what I’d be discovering in North Carolina I thought that what I’d be learning there would be good for the peninsula. I said that if people wanted to hear about the trip they should come for a potluck supper at the café―and I named the day.
Back in Blue Hill on a cold and snowy fall night after I returned, over sixty people showed up at the potluck supper. In the bedroom above our café I ran the PBS video several times so every person attending the gathering had a chance to see it. Downstairs I spoke about my North Carolina experience.
One month later several of us began to meet every Monday evening (yes, once a week!) to see how we could best serve our neighbors in our mostly rural “neighborhood.”
In North Carolina I had been inspired to two visions. 1) that a group of us at home would create a place for the terminally ill located centrally on the peninsula and/or 2)that neighborhoods of volunteers would begin enhancing the neighboring already in place in each of our thirteen peninsula towns. (The third vision would come later.)
I knew ours would be a group project, if it materialized. I also knew that my only attachment as to how this project would take form was that it must be volunteer run, free-of-charge, unlicensed and fueled (and delivered) with pure intention.
During our meetings, we talked and, as we talked, felt a shape forming, slowly, for our group. (An important part of the process was forgiving each other and ourselves for thinking much of the time that we didn’t know what we were doing. What we did know was that we felt inspired.) From day one, no matter who participated, the meetings were infused with joy and laughter―even when challenges rose up and shook us. Also, no meetings lasted longer than two hours.
What we didn’t want to do was impose our own notion of good on our peninsula, or duplicate efforts already in place. So we invited Hospice, hospital, home-healthcare people and others to come to sit with us and express their own vision as to what they thought was lacking. From these meetings, amidst great initial shifts in board membership, Neighborcare was born. (Actually, we didn’t call ourselves a board for a long while; so resistant were some to adding still another concretized commitment to their already busy lives.) While our formative meetings continued, we made sure to begin/keep up volunteering, on our own, in our own towns and in the community at large. We did not want to be all talk and no do.
The name Neighborcare arose naturally from our time together, and was contributed by a co-founding board member. Much later when we were bringing out our brochure, we discussed whether or not to trademark the name and decided, instead, to encourage other groups to use their own names that had meaning for them, or ours if they were all-volunteer, offered free-of-charge service, and shared our spirit. We decided if someone “used our name in vain,” we’d face that challenge with as much integrity as we could muster and do what needed to be done.
We were careful not to publicize ourselves, though I did speak on community radio several times and set up meetings in many peninsula towns so people could get a feel of what we were about. We knew what could happen if we took on person after person in our peninsula towns and then couldn’t serve them. How cruel that would be, we realized. We understood that our visits were the highlight―as well as the saving grace―of many a person’s life.
During meetings, in addition to discussing, with respect, the people we were serving, we spent much time talking about what constituted a health-related case. We knew that every situation could be health related if we stretched our interpretation far enough. We also knew that we must be purposeful and focused, or else scattered to the winds. What happened over time was that we chose (in a purposeful and focused way!) to be far ranging, and have come full circle to our initial intention to fill in the gaps, and do that well. (A priest once called us “the honey that flows between the cracks of the toasted English muffin.”) It was and is our hope that we achieve a caregiver/caregetter balance that allows each person to serve and be served in heartful, creative, respectful ways.
Our ideal is to not only respond to–but to be on the lookout for–those who could use and might want our help. We serve joyfully and welcome anyone of any age, religion, sex, race, culture, sexual orientation, or financial circumstance to serve with us. We also welcome volunteers of every level of ability, including individuals who are housebound, bedridden and/or physically incapacitated. We invite family members to volunteer together. This sometimes is ideal for single mothers/fathers who cannot leave their children.
Our services include respite care, one-to-one informational support (e.g. people who have experienced Alzheimer’s Disease in their family offer support to those who are currently faced with this challenge), errands, taxi service, carpentry, gardening, and building, etc., services,” alternative” healing skills, mediation services, letter-writing, advocacy, hands-on care as supplement to hospice and home health nursing care, and more. MORE . . . Our caring includes animals; it includes plants. We do little good caring for people we reach out to, unless we care for what they love, as well.
Often people ask us why we formed a group to do neighboring, when neighboring was already being done. Working together as Neighborcare, we affirm that we share a common purpose–also, we provide a link to each other from other service groups we already may belong to. What a gift, that we’re a phone call away from Neighborcare volunteers, peninsula wide―and now, beyond―who are glad to offer guidance and/or on-site support. Often what we do is enhance neighbor-helping-neighbor efforts so that, whenever possible duplication of services is avoided and the most effective support is assured. We applaud the volunteer efforts already in place on our peninsula and welcome opportunities to coordinate our caregiving resources with the caregiving resources of others. By working together as Neighborcare, we attract additional volunteers and increase our potential to serve more of our neighbors. We know we are more-than-the-sum-of-our-parts.
At the heart of our work is an extended-family ideal that is boundless as well as the intention that no one need suffer or die alone. We know that as we serve, we also are served beyond measure.
What fuels our spirit is our understanding that the smallest deed done well has positive effect, not only in our own neighborhoods, but in the world beyond. We nourish in ourselves and in each other attitudes of abundance, compassion, trust, self-responsibility, fearlessness and gratitude. At the same time we leave attitudes of worry, self-doubt, blame, fear, resentment, pettiness, and the like, to wither from lack of our attention.
When asked about legalities, we answer that we are neighbors who neither need nor want contracts and releases. It is not that we are casual about such matters–we know if someone injures himself or herself while in our care a relative who has no relationship with Neighborcare easily could decide to sue us. If such a situation arises we would meet it with as much integrity as possible. In addition, there is a Good Samaritan law in our state, and because we do not charge for our services and are not a corporation, we are, as we say―and want to be: just neighbors.
All along we have not sought corporate or foundation funding and are not applying for 501c3 status. We don’t have an office. Our phone is in a closet in a former board member’s home.
In the beginning, at each meeting, we put in an envelope what we could―sometimes nothing, other times two dollars or fifty or a hundred. Gratefully, we have accepted additional donations of money, services, stamps, etc., from those who celebrate our efforts. Early on, a local printer was glad to print our brochure and inserts for free. For the past few years a gracious benefactor has donated $2,000 per year. (It’s a myth that people will contribute only when they can deduct contributions on their income tax returns.) Within the first two weeks after we began meeting―while we still were without a name, a Neighborcare friend offered ten acres of beautiful land for a center for the terminally ill, if that was to be our choice of focus. (Only “if you are really serious,” he cautioned.) We are serious, and happily so, but as of now still want/need no land or center.
Four times a year we announced potlucks, which we held at a central location. More often than not, however, another co-founder and I found ourselves the only ones attending our potlucks. Over soup and salad we discussed Neighborcare business, mostly laughing and having a grand time, and only momentarily experiencing a flicker of discouragement. More than once, we reminded ourselves that there were thirteen towns involved in our efforts, these spread over a good-size peninsula. “Maybe folks are just out there “doing the work,” we told ourselves!
During one of these meetings an idea popped into my head that we might make our potlucks into work parties where the addressing of Neighborcare newsletters could be accomplished. To date, the newsletters go out to nearly nine hundred people and we’re still addressing them by hand for as long as we can keep doing that―many folks have donated beautiful stamps. When the newsletters arrive the caring literally can be felt. What the newsletters contain is far more than fact. Countless people have said the newsletters inspire and comfort them, that when it arrives they make a special time (with tea and quiet) to read it through.
Before and after our potluck meetings, we sit in circle. Though we are not associated with any designated religious group, we ask for the well being of those whom we name in our circle, and all other beings as well who could benefit―if this would be for theirs and greater good. Whoever visits our meetings, we invite to sit with us in this whole and holy way.
As Neighborcare, we rejoice in the individual gifts and talents of Neighborcare volunteers and are grateful for volunteers’ offerings of time of service, no matter how great or how small these offerings may be. Certainly, our lives breathe as we do, expanding and contracting. Sometimes people are able to give more, sometimes less. We are no less kind and accepting with each other than we are with the people we reach out to serve. Patience has been key, and celebration.
We choose not to have lots of rules or forms―in fact; we hardly have any at all. We are neighbors; we remind ourselves when others tempt us to embrace a paperwork model. Yet though as neighbors we’re spontaneous and responsive, we’re also as professional and as responsible as we are capable of being. Being responsible, we know, means being compassionate―not merely dutiful―the word duty bearing chilly connotations we all could best do without.
Over the years, each neighborhood has begun to oversee more of its own functioning, leaving me/us at communication central to assume more of a “mother ship” role. More and more, people calling for service are calling people in their own town and not calling our main number. As soon as I finish polishing up our database, each Neighborcare contact person in each town will have a list of all those willing to serve in that town, as well as some idea of what services those volunteers are willing to offer. Already we are blessed with those eager to offer food when the need arises, and others willing to offer simple carpentry services and computer services and nursing services. Bathrooms have been revamped for handicapped access, wheelchair ramps have been built―an entire addition was completed―all for no charge. What people long for is to stay home, when they need longterm caring for. We try to help them do that.
In times of great demand we call people to serve who are not signed-up volunteers―who do not even receive our newsletter; graciously, they are serving. Without publicizing ourselves, and without pushing for this, Neighborcare-inspired groups are blooming well beyond our peninsula borders. I’m pleased to assist (and learn from) the generous, new-thinking founders of these core bands of neighbors.
Earlier I mentioned a third vision. It is this: That Neighborcare will become obsolete, that on this peninsula and beyond, in each home, will be a list of people to call for every kind of free-of-charge, health-related service and emergency, that giving of ourselves will become as natural as breathing and be interwoven with our lives. In any direction we turn, then, we either will be helping or being helped, carrying each other to higher ground.
We are in our ninth year, now, but still are toddlers in this work. Do be in touch if you have questions or comments about what we’ve been about so far. We are happy to hear from you and invite you to share your experiences with similar all volunteer, free-of-charge projects of your own.