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Interfaith Caregivers receive much more than they give

A volunteer works with clients and a Head Start child decorating Christmas wreaths at the adult respite program in New Richmond.

Kay Foulke, volunteer coordinator for Interfaith Caregivers of Polk County, describes the mission of the organization as an effort to "assist seniors and adults living with disabilities to maintain their independence, dignity and quality of life at home."

She described the various services volunteers might provide for clients, including things like transportation to and from medical appointments, shopping and running errands, snow shoveling and yard work depending on the season, help with light housework, reading, minor fix-it/handyman repairs, and respite visits.

"I love working with people who are still living in the community," said Nancy Abrahamson, program director for Interfaith services in St. Croix County. "They've got such inner strength and resolve and they want to stay at home. They want to be successful. Interfaith is a nice fit because we can offer only as much assistance as they need and still keep them living at home."

Abrahamson said she recalled a 92-year-old woman who contacted her at one time.

"She said, 'I've been in the nursing home for two weeks and I'm about to come home and I think I'm going to need just a little bit of help with housekeeping, not too much. You know I change the oil in my car myself,'" Abrahamson said.

Abrahamson has 30 years' experience working with elderly people in a variety of roles, most recently with Interfaith Caregivers.

"I think some people are confused by the title of our program because they think we are a religious organization," she said. "Technically we are not. Our mission is to offer opportunities to people of any faith or philosophy to help another person."

Abrahamson currently manages a pool of 150 active volunteers about half of which are men and half women. She describes her volunteers as "highly motivated, compassionate, intelligent professionals" many of whom are retired while others still work and some are students.

Every volunteer is vetted, background and references are checked and an orientation is required.

"I want my volunteers to feel supported and prepared," she said.

Volunteer drivers are not reimbursed for any of their expenses. They volunteer the use of their vehicle, pay for their gas and donate their time.

"In New Richmond, drivers are a particular need for us," Abrahamson said. "They primarily take folks to ongoing medical appointments like dialysis, chemotherapy, swim therapy and radiation treatment."

According to Abrahamson, one of the strengths of Interfaith is its flexibility. Volunteers know that they can say "no" when she calls. Success depends in part on respecting a volunteer's time.

"Volunteers repeatedly tell me, they think they get far more out of the relationship than the recipient," she said. "The key to the success of our program is our volunteers' willingness to share who they are with our clients, to talk about their lives."

Clients who receive services do not have to adhere to a particular belief system to seek help.

"We are an organization that works between a wide variety of people that belong to churches and some that don't, but everyone firmly believes in helping their neighbors," Abrahamson said.

Karen Krupa left a career as a teacher and administrator in the Amery school system eight years ago to become the program director for Interfaith Caregivers of Polk County. She oversees 170 volunteers with an average age of 62, most of which are retired and two thirds of which are women.

Last year her volunteers helped 482 people, donated 8,159 hours and drove 72,952 miles. Interfaith takes all those miles and hours and leverages them into funding in the form of grants and donations. Many of those donations come from grateful clients.

"Those little things volunteers do like bringing in the mail or loosening the lid on a jar, the person they are helping appreciates it so much because they know somebody else cares," Krupa said.

86-year-old Purnal Tracy of Osceola came to Interfaith as the result of seeing his friend's name on the board of directors.

As a younger man, Tracy volunteered as an EMT with the fire department. Today he's a volunteer driver for Interfaith; transporting folks for anything from medical appointments, to errands and grocery shopping, even vet appointments for folks with their dogs.

Does he enjoy volunteering? "Oh yes. I meet a lot of people I otherwise would not," he said. "I think it's a good thing you know, to help out in the world. You can't just sit around and melt. You've got to get out and help."

Krupa recognizes there is a generational shift occurring in volunteering today.

"We've moved from the steady dependable volunteers of the World War II generation to the much more independent Baby Boomer generation," she said.

Instead of one volunteer meeting all the needs of a client, she matches up teams of volunteers with a single client.

"It's a good thing all around," she said. "More people are familiar with the situation in case there's a need for backup. Volunteers stay more interested and clients meet new people."

Interfaith Caregivers address another need created when families started dispersing across the country. Used to be generations of families lived in the same house or within shouting distance of each other and took care of aging family members at home.

"We get calls from around the country for people whose older relatives live here," Krupa said. "We are their boots on the ground getting them to their medical appointments."

To make a donation or volunteer, contact the Interfaith Volunteer Program C/O ADRC of St. Croix County, 1101 Carmichael Road, Hudson, WI 54016. Phone contact is at 800-372-2333 or online at:

Interfaith Caregivers of Polk County is located at 215 Main St., Ste 105, Balsam Lake, WI 54810. Phone contact is 715-485-9500 or online at: