Listening & Responding: Creating an Effective Volunteer Program

Jen Buchanan, Kyle Robidoux, and Jen's Guiding Eyes dog Keating

Jen Buchanan, Kyle Robidoux, and Jen’s Guiding Eyes dog Keating

Post by Kyle Robidoux, MABVI Director of Volunteer and Support Group Services, and Jen Buchanan, MABVI Eastern Massachusetts Volunteer Coordinator

Like most things, social service programs and their consumers’ needs change and evolve over time. As such, organizations and programs must be nimble and open-minded to ensure that they are meeting the needs of consumers.

Since 1959, the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired (MABVI) has been running a One-to-One Volunteer Program that matches sighted volunteers with individuals who are blind or visually impaired (B/VI). The program currently works with over 180 volunteers and 115 consumers.

Historically, MABVI volunteers have helped with daily activities and tasks such as reading (mail or for pleasure), grocery shopping, and other clerical and administrative-type tasks. There continues to be a strong need for help with these types of tasks, but over the past few years our office has begun to field requests for more varied activities.

In response to this growing need, we decided to be more open about the type of activities we would support. For example, a number of people who are B/VI asked us to help them with recreational physical activities, such as finding a gym buddy to help spot and navigate the equipment, or someone to serve as a guide for running and walking. While these requests were not typical, numerous individuals were asking for these services, so we felt it was important to provide this support.

Kyle and his team of skiing guides from Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports

Kyle and his team of skiing guides from Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports

Both of us are active runners and alpine skiers, so we are aware of the physical and mental health benefits of being active. We understand that at times individuals who are B/VI can become isolated and less socially active due to their vision loss. This is most common for people who experience age-related vision loss or sudden vision loss. Being active enables individuals to get outside, move around, increase self-confidence, improve physical health outcomes, and build new social networks.

Often, these new social networks can provide support in other ways, too. We have sighted guide runners who then start helping with other traditional activities. We’ve both been matched with sighted guides through MABVI, which allows us to continue running safely and confidently, so we understand the inherit benefits of this type of volunteer support.

Jen Buchanan and her sighted guide Dr. Jen Salvo pose after racing in the B.A.A. 5K 2015

Jen Buchanan and her sighted guide, MABVI’s Dr. Jen Salvo, pose after racing in the B.A.A. 5K 2015

Recreational physical activities are not the only new requests we’ve been receiving. With all of the emerging assistive technology (AT), more consumers are asking for training and/or one-time support on using devices such as iPads and iPhones. We are currently working on a model in which we match individuals who are B/VI and want to use AT with skilled and experienced users. They may work together on a one-time issue (troubleshooting) or meet over a period of time (skill building).

We know that people who currently use AT are often the best experts, however, so we are also exploring a peer-to-peer model with the possibility of building in some part-time employment or stipend opportunities for individuals who are B/VI to provide technical assistance. This is another example of our philosophy of responding to consumers’ needs, as we would not even be discussing this exciting new model if individuals were not calling us and asking for this type of support.

Sometimes individuals approach us with more unique needs as well. We recently fielded a call from a consumer who had front row tickets to a series of summer concerts featuring country music superstars Toby Keith and Tim McGraw. A big country music fan, she purchased the tickets with confidence that a sighted country fan would volunteer to help provide transportation and support at the event – and she was right! After reaching out to our staff and network of existing volunteers, multiple individuals stepped up to attend the shows and help our consumer experience Tim and Toby live.

Tim McGraw in concert - photo taken by a consumer and volunteer in attendance

Tim McGraw in concert – photo taken by a consumer and volunteer in attendance

Another way in which we have adapted our programming is through establishing our Family Volunteer Program. While our one-to-one volunteers must be over 18 years old, we wanted to allow people younger than that, such as high schoolers, to have the opportunity to volunteer, while still ensuring the presence of an adult. In our Family Volunteer Program, parents or guardians can volunteer alongside a teenager. This way the teen volunteers are getting ownership of their activities and get to see the direct result of their compassion and efforts. We always love to see young people wanting to volunteer their time to help others!

The more open and flexible we are, the more volunteers we can engage. We consistently hear from our volunteers that they get as much, if not more, out of the experience as the person they volunteer for. Studies and research back this up, indicating that volunteerism improves self-esteem, reduces stress, lowers blood pressure, etc.  It appears that acting on the basic human instinct to help others creates a positive physiological effect for yourself.

Our Volunteer Program is thriving and has experienced tremendous growth over the past two years. We are providing a sighted volunteer to over 70% more consumers and engaging over 50% more volunteers. A major factor in our growth is our recent flexibility and commitment to listening and responding to the needs of the consumers we work with.

Our work has also helped to shape the way in which we think about some of MABVI’s other programs and services. For example, we are in the very early planning stages of a forum to help us re-think blindness services in the 21st Century. We are convening a series of focus groups with individuals who are B/VI to gather their feedback and ensure that we are discussing the key topics and organizing the appropriate plenary sessions.

We continue to evaluate our success and challenges in an effort to strengthen our program. We are eager to connect with and learn from other organizations that are providing similar services, as well as share our program model with them. If you are one such organization, please drop us a line! Let us know what you are working on, any new trends you are experiencing, and your thoughts about ways we all can continue to support and empower individuals who experience vision loss. You can email Kyle at krobidoux@mabcommunity.org.

If you are an individual looking to become a volunteer or would like a volunteer, email Jen at jbuchanan@mabcommunity.org, call her at 617-972-9119, or fill out our application form online here.

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