We happened to arrive in the area (our home base) the week after the storm, and were able to spend a couple of days working on site. Many volunteers had preceded us, so by the time we arrived on Day 9, much of the large debris had been placed in dumpsters already.
There was still more to clear, and we did a lot of that, but we found that one of the most valuable services we could provide was listening. The residents needed to tell their stories from that terrifying night; needed to tell us how much they’d been helped by volunteers; how they appreciated losing only things, not lives.
Almost all the residents we spoke with said they were thankful they didn’t have it as bad as some of the others. We saw what they were dealing with. Just who were these others who had it worse?
Maybe it was because we weren’t on the scene until several days had passed, but we were surprised by the community members’ senses of resiliency, positivity — and even humor. They were in it together, holding each other up, cracking jokes about taking margarita breaks (at 10:30 in the morning), and making light of getting the job done, just slowly, due to age and associated infirmities.
The level and amount of destruction we saw certainly filled our minds with our own what-ifs.
What if we lost our home tomorrow? With our full physical capabilities and financial stability, we’d start over, and eventually recover, with ample time ahead of us to appreciate the lessons learned and the blessings of a new beginning.
But what if it happened when we were closer to our 80’s, when neither physical nor financial strength are assured? When it might be only one of us left able or alive to deal with the aftermath of a natural disaster? How would we begin again? How could we?
No answer. I have no answer to that. These folks probably didn’t either, and I’m sure they handle their “one step at a time” better during some hours than others.
One gentleman needed our help moving some furniture out of his ruined RV and into the outbuilding on his lot. He was unwell. He was living alone.
And yet, he offered to compensate us for our assistance.
He insisted, and as the hand holding his wallet began to tremble, we realized that turning him down would likely add to his grief rather than alleviate it, so we told him we’d be stopping at a Dairy Queen for treats on the way home, and that if he’d like to pay for those, we would gratefully accept a few dollars. That earned us a smile.
I don’t think he knew that it was Mother’s Day.
I also don’t think he knew how he was going to get through the next day.
But rewarding his helpers was something he could do, while facing so many things he couldn’t.
Surviving such devastation takes more strength and patience than I can imagine, and so does enduring the lengthy and confusing insurance claims process, not to mention the hassle of finding new cars and RVs in which to start over — to start over at age 70or even older.
At a time when the world is quite literally ailing, we were able to experience a little healing by occupying our minds, hands and hearts in service to others.
The mental and emotional balm was invaluable, and that alone would have been compensation enough for our work, but we gained so. much. more.
Wait. Escapees what?
There’s this quite remarkable place in Livingston, TX, called the Escapees CARE Center, and if you’ve attended an Escapees or Xscapers event, you’ve probably heard of it, and maybe even thrown some money toward a fundraiser for it.
It’s not where old RV’ers go to die.
It’s where they go to live better, longer — in the comfort of their own RVs.
So maybe before I explain to you what we did at CARE, I should explain to you what CARE is.
It stands for Continuing Assistance for Retired Escapees, and its mission, straight out of the employee/volunteer handbook, is “to provide a home for Escapees members who are no longer able to travel due to their age or disabilities. The purpose is to allow them to remain in their own RV home while receiving support services that will enable them to continue to live independently.”
And from the web site, “CARE is a place where you will receive professional help for the things you may no longer be able to do. It is not a nursing home. Its goal is to delay or eliminate the need for a nursing home, or assisted living.”
It’s a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that includes both residential and adult day care (ADC) programs, and it’s been in operation since 1995. (More FAQs)
During our time there, there were 52 residents in 40 RV sites (of an available 60), and although the ADC was closed during our first 3 weeks, we were able to help welcome back about 8 clients as quarantine restrictions eased.
How’d you get into it?
I must have seen a plea for volunteers in one of our RVing Facebook groups.
We were attracted by the opportunity to give back to the Escapees community (y’all, we get far more value out of our annual membership fee than the $40.00 we put in), as well as by the volunteer requirements and benefits.
We knew we’d be serving on a team of about 8 volunteers, each putting in 24-32 hours a week, to help provide some of the benefits CARE offers its clients: assistance with daily tasks, meals, errands, and appointments.
We completed our applications in July 2019, and got on the roster for the month of May 2020, knowing that we could zip over to Livingston after our usual annual visit to San Antonio in April.
Little did we know then how unusual the spring of 2020 would be!
Were you worried about COVID-19?
Yes, for a few reasons.
CARE residents are an at-risk population due to both advanced age and to underlying health issues. Contracting or inadvertently transmitting the virus were real concerns.
Group activities and outings had been all but eliminated at CARE because of social distancing and sanitary protocols, and no visitors were allowed. This made us wonder if we’d even have enough to do to make it worth the risk of Item 1.
What if the virus resurged while we were there, and quarantine orders were extended? Would we be able to shelter in place beyond our month-long commitment?
After lengthy email and phone discussions with the volunteer coordinator, we were assured that reasonable precautions were being taken to keep residents, staff, and volunteers safe.
We were also assured that although volunteer duties had been minimized, our assistance was indeed still needed and that there’d be space for us should we have to extend our stay.
Benefits outweighed risk, so we went.
How was your first week?
A little lonely.
We abided by the staff nurse’s request to self-quarantine for 7 days upon arrival.
On the 8th day, we were ready for training, and after that, it was daily temperature checks, social distancing, and judicious use of masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer for all.
So what kinds of things did you do?
We rotated on a 4-team, 4-day roster that included Driver/Honey-Do Day, Backup Driver Day, On-Call Day (24 hours), and a day off.
Most of our duties revolved around meals. The dining hall was open only for a sparsely attended continental breakfast for our first ten days, so we helped take orders and deliver lunch and dinner to residents’ RVs.
When the facility reopened for noon and evening meals, at reduced capacity to enforce social distancing, we volunteers then juggled jobs as order takers, servers, deliverers (for those who weren’t yet comfortable dining in), and cleaner-uppers.
On driving days, we made use of the CARE minivan fleet to take residents to necessary appointments. Some days, because of quarantine closures and/or cautious residents, there were no outings at all. This was a big change from usual operations*, when we’re told all four minivans were in and out all day long.
*One of the residents, Ms. R, referred to the time before the pandemic as “back when things were cool.” Can’t begrudge her that! It was cool when we could get together at will with our friends for movies, shopping, potlucks, and game nights. Make no mistake that the aged among us feel the isolation deeply, and in ways we “whippersnappers” can’t even appreciate.
As for honey-do’s, those were tasks that tended to fall outside the realm of usual volunteer duties, and we were welcome to tackle them if we felt comfortable and/or skilled enough to do so.
What about other memorable happenings?
We learned so much. We listened, we gave comfort, we cried, and we laughed. We made friends and shared stories. We were given a sense of purpose at a time when we needed to feel needed.
And we’ll do it again.
We haven’t chosen a month to commit yet, but we really want to go back and see how it feels during non-pandemic conditions — when things are cool again. (Hat tip to you, Ms. R!)