Volunteers help those with special needs remain socially and creatively active in the community

Dignity. Safety. Hope.

Lutheran Social Services client, Patty, front, shares a laugh in her residence in Mankato with, from left, Shannon Butler, Guardianship Options supervisor; Sandy Birkholz, friendly volunteer visitor and Sally Brigance, volunteer coordinator, Guardianship Options.

Lutheran Social Services client, Patty, front, shares a laugh in her residence in Mankato with, from left, Shannon Butler, Guardianship Options supervisor; Sandy Birkholz, friendly volunteer visitor and Sally Brigance, volunteer coordinator, Guardianship Options.

That is the stated goal Lutheran Social Services (LSS) has for all people served through the Guardianship Options program.  It’s designed to care for the well-being of special needs individuals.

Assisting the program is a compassionate group of people called the “friendly volunteer visitors” who play an important role in visiting clients to help them continue to be socially and creatively active and remain a part of the community.

The LSS Guardianship Options program for the southern third region of the state is under the direction of Supervising Guardian Shannon Butler in Mankato.

LSS is an experienced statewide organization with offices located in eight locations across the state. It’s the largest provider of guardianship services offered in Minnesota with a fully certified staff. Currently, Butler’s office is serving around 170 clients and assisted by about 20 volunteers in a number of communities, including Mankato, New Ulm, Waseca, St. Peter and Owatonna.

“All guardians in the program are nationally certified,” explained Butler. “We’re court appointed for elderly people who can’t make good decisions on their own or who might be dealing with health issues, mentally challenged, physically disabled or chemically dependent.”

Volunteers assist clients depending on their interests and abilities. “When people get involved as volunteers they benefit almost as much as the client when they discover that by helping someone to not feel forgotten can be very rewarding,” said Guardianship Options Volunteer Coordinator Sally Brigance.

“But the need for more friendly volunteer visitor participants is always in demand,” Brigance continued.  “We’re trying to get the word out that we want additional volunteers to join us.”

“The volunteers are super as they help people to feel they are not left out of day-to-day activities,” Butler stated. “It gives the client and their assigned friend both a good feeling to know there are people who care.”

“And we have some wonderful staff who go the extra mile in their care for the client,” Butler said.  “I always tell them they’re building up their future treasures in heaven for the comfort and compassion they provide now.”

Butler explained that program clients are matched up with friendly volunteer visitors.

“Some of our clients don’t have a family member or someone who comes to visit regularly so the volunteers are there to be a friend and involve them in activities that they both are interested in, be it shopping or going to the mall, maybe going bowling, even fishing at a lake,” she stated.

“Volunteers visit where the client lives, and it’s a perfect chance for someone who’s looking for something to do,” Brigance said. “We’re not the caregivers, but rather we provide companionship and give clients someone to talk to and share activities or hobbies.”

Sandy Birkholz has been volunteering in the Friendly Volunteer Visitor program for the past 16 years. During all of that time she’s been assigned to Patty (last name withheld) who resides in the Harry Myerling Intensive Care Facility in Mankato.

Patty is physically disabled and nonverbal. “I guess you could say I’ve become attached to her needs,” said Birkholz who has won a state award for volunteerism from LSS. “You figure out things to do with her and develop a bond. But even if Patty can’t communicate I believe she understands a lot more than we think.”

There’s a big range of how much services clients need, depending upon if they can live independently in their own house, apartment or care facility.  Sandy said she generally sees Patty at least once a month at minimum. “I always read to her, and we do a lot of little crafts.”

Sally agreed that it’s the small things that mean a lot to the clients. “We might not think much about what we do, but our clients say it’s so nice to have volunteers spend some time with them,” she said.

Shannon noted that some volunteers have been helping out for a long time and see more than one client.

“We appreciate the stability they provide to those clients,” she commented.

Sally recalled when some volunteers start visiting clients that they sometimes surprise themselves.

“When they begin they might have thought they wouldn’t do it very long, but after they get to know and make a new client friend, they realize that what they’re doing is really meaningful and that makes them feel good about themselves too,” she said.

All volunteers are required to have background checks before they are eligible to enter private residences to work with clients. “They also have to report after each visit to inform me of any changes they see in their client and what can be improved upon after forwarding the information to Shannon for review,” Sally stated.

Sandy said she notices changes in Patty every time they meet for a visit. “I believe she’s living longer than people expected because of the friendly volunteer visitor program.  Life expectancy for all people with disabilities has gone up because of the care they receive and from volunteers who take the time to visit and offer their talents to them.  They’re not just a number anymore,” she said.

Shannon mentioned that the Guardianship Options program provides customized services to meet clients’ needs.  “We are person-centered planners, and we’re looking at what’s important to them.  Having the support they need, setting personal goals and helping achieve them means we’re not just in a cookie-cutter mode for them.”

LSS Guardianship Options has a history of providing services for more than 20 years and works with county social service organizations, courts, legal representatives and trustees to ensure the well-being of individuals who can no longer make personal or financial decisions for themselves.

Their vision is that all people have an opportunity to live and work in the community. By serving the vulnerable, volunteers help LSS staff preserve the integrity, independence and address concerns of special needs adults in the least restrictive and most respectful manner possible.

Finally, Sally stated that anyone interested in additional information and learning more about the friendly volunteer visitor program can call her at 507-340-3162 or e-mail her at sally.Brigance@lssmn.org, and she will be glad to answer all questions.