Home Away from Home volunteer Raina Schoen Thomas '20 and Terry Price '58 talk during a 2019 meeting time. (SUNY Geneseo/file photo)
Geneseo’s Home Away from Home respite program provides community seniors who have memory-related illnesses a welcoming space—and necessary free time for their caregivers. The program, created in 2016, is staffed entirely by trained student volunteers.
Since the novel coronavirus hit last March, they have been unable to meet for their twice-weekly coffee conversations, gratitude journaling, crafts, baking, and time together. Instead of taking a pause, students and Sharon Leary, program coordinator and the college’s student employment service coordinator, got creative to maintain the program this fall.
“We reimagined what we could do,” says Leary, whose office is in the Center for Community, “and the students have run with it. Do we long for the days when we can get back together? Absolutely. But it’s working and it’s working well.”
Each week, Mike and Cathy Murphy and the three other families currently in the program receive a packet designed by the students. It includes activities and supplies to create a craft. A different student volunteer designs the craft and makes video instructions to follow each week. They also meet two times per week in a live video session to talk, share items from gratitude journals, and enjoy each other’s company.
“When we first went back online, Mike cried because he was so excited to see everyone,” says Cathy Murphy.
Mike has been in the program since 2018 and looked forward to being there. The virtual experience is very different, Cathy says, “but the safest option at this point.” It’s also been good to do the calls together. Sometimes their dog, Willow, makes cameos on screen. And more students have been able to participate.
“They bring such energy and life to everything,” says Cathy.
During her time with the seniors, says three-year volunteer Maya Dangler ’22, she “gets to see them shine. It’s the best part of my week.”
Dangler had cared for her grandparents and was interested in caregiving, cognitive neuroscience, and memory studies when she joined the program. Between Home Away from Home and a part-time job caring for an elderly woman in Geneseo, she says she has found “so much fulfillment and joy”—and a calling.
“I’ve learned that caring for this type of population is a true passion of mine,” says Dangler. “I want to work in hospice and research memory-related disorders. This program has given me an amazing group of friends and family—and a career path.”