Bellingham program needs more volunteers to help at-home seniors


After just a few months in operation, Bellingham At Home is so successful attracting members that the group is now scrambling for volunteers to help local seniors stay in their homes rather than move to a care facility.

“They need to be able to bring more volunteers in to help these people,” said Marie Mellinger of Bellingham, the nonprofit’s first volunteer. “There is a very definite need for people who want to stay in their own home, which I think most elderly folks want to do.”

Modeled after nearly 200 such programs elsewhere, Bellingham At Home organizes social activities for its members, develops a screened list of local businesses of interest to seniors, and finds volunteers to help members with handyman tasks, household chores, transportation and social support.

In May, the group announced its kickoff campaign with a special offer: Join early and lock in the initial membership fee of $350 a year for the first three years.

People can still join this year for $350, but their annual fee will likely rise in future years. Membership in Bellingham At Home automatically includes membership to Bellingham Senior Activity Center.

As of Aug. 9, Bellingham At Home had 105 members and 60 volunteers, of whom 50 had been trained.

Organizers hoped to have 50 members by the end of this year, with another 20 to 30 next year, toward their long-term goal of 100. It’s now clear they underestimated local interest in the program, and perhaps seniors’ interest in a good bargain.

As of Aug. 9, Bellingham At Home had 105 members, representing 81 local households, with new members joining every week, said Kate Birr, a volunteer spokeswoman.

Bellingham At Home currently has 60 volunteers, of whom 50 have been trained. Some members are also volunteers.

Volunteers can help in the office and serve on task forces or the leadership council.

Most needed are “service” volunteers, people to drive, visit, and do household jobs for elderly members.

Others, called “service” volunteers, are the people who drive members to appointments and other outings, do small fix-it jobs, garden, tend lawns, change furnace filters, and help with the other myriad tasks that can make the difference between an elderly person staying in the home they love instead of moving to a nursing or retirement home.

Volunteers also provide members with social support by, for example, playing a game or watching a movie with them, or accompanying them to events.

Bellingham At Home’s new goal is to have an equal number of volunteers and members by Sept. 1.

“If we don’t get there, we can probably manage,” Birr said.

To get as close to that goal as possible, new volunteers by that date will be in the running for a special prize.

Members are being asked to volunteer a few hours a week, and to enlist friends and acquaintances as volunteers. Organizers also are working with The Volunteer Center of Whatcom County, and plan to talk to local service clubs and houses of worship.

Becoming volunteers

Would-be volunteers must be 18 or older and undergo a criminal background check. Volunteer drivers must be 25 or older and also undergo a driving background check.

Volunteers pay to be vetted; $17 for the criminal background check and $18 for the driving background check. Financial aid is available to help people with those costs. Training for volunteers is free.

Mellinger decided to become a volunteer after reading about Bellingham At Home in the Bellingham Senior Center newsletter. Retired from overseeing staffing levels at an Everett hospital, she now puts her organizational skills to work shepherding Bellingham At Home’s rapidly growing computerized list of contacts.

Mellinger is 85 and her husband is 87, but they both drive, and their grown children live in the area, so they haven’t joined Bellingham At Home because they don’t need outside help.

“At this point in time we don’t need the vetted services of service workers,” she said. “There’s no need now. Maybe in the future.”

Dean Kahn: 360-715-2291

Bellingham At Home

Phone: 360-746-3462

Online: bellinghamathome.org