Shepherd Center in search of volunteers

Shepherd’s Center volunteer Jean Hastings, left, helps Gini Brandt into her car to deliver her to a doctor’s appointment on Thursday. (Adam Robison)

Shepherd’s Center volunteer Jean Hastings, left, helps Gini Brandt into her car to deliver her to a doctor’s appointment on Thursday. (Adam Robison)

by Riley Manning
Daily Journal

Since 1991, the Shepherd’s Center of Greater Tupelo has served an often overlooked group of citizens in need: the elderly.

Kirk Biddle, director of the Shepherd’s Center, said the clients he serves are more numerous and more in need than the public realizes.

“It’s one thing we all have in common,” he said. “We’re all going to get old, and we’re all going to need help.”

Since its inception, the Shepherd’s Center has gained the support of 10 churches around the community. These churches have provided the vast majority of the Shepherd Center’s funding, as well as facilities to house the non-profit organization’s office.

In the two years since he began working for the Center, Biddle said he has been working to make it an official affiliate of the United Way. This year, funding from the United Way finally came through.

Shoestring budget
The greatest advantage to the United Way grants, Biddle said, was the ability to hire part-time office coordinator Blake Hill.

“Before she joined us, I was performing director duties and office duties,” Biddle said. “Between keeping our volunteers and clients organized, and trying to push the program forward, I was treading water by myself.”

Biddle said the amount of clients Shepherd Center can serve is based on the number of active, unpaid volunteers, who use their own vehicles to transport elderly citizens to their doctor appointments, the grocery store, etc. With Hill now holding down the office, located in Tupelo’s First Presbyterian Church, Biddle has been gathering resources to draw more volunteers.

“We’re trying to get on the books to speak to some local civic clubs and other churches,” he said. “And I think it would be possible to partner with other groups and use their skills without losing our mission and dedication specifically to the elderly. The need is probably even bigger than we realize.”

Biddle said the statistics back him up.

He said with 10,000 people turning 65 each day, about 23 percent of the American population is over 65 years old. In 10 years, it could rise to 30 percent. Already this year, the Shepherd Center’s 26 active volunteers have accumulated 939 service hours.

“Not everyone can afford assisted living homes, and even if they could, we couldn’t build them fast enough to accomodate the growing number of seniors,” he said. “We are trying to find the best ways to replicate our services, increase volunteers, and adapt to future shifts in the demographic.”

To the rescue
Shepherd’s Center client Gini Brandt found herself unable to drive last year after a stroke. She quickly found that cab companies do not transport citizens who are ill or use a walker. With her closest family residing in Tennessee, she heard about the Center through a friend and has been thrilled with their help.

“If not for them, I would have been stuck at the house not recovering,” she said.

Brandt said most of the volunteers are retired themselves, forming a ministry that Biddle calls “the elderly helping the elderly.”

When Brant took a fall last month and scratched her glasses, her volunteer helper offered to pick up her new ones when they were fixed. Brant said she was just thankful for the ride to her appointments.

“Their dedication and commitment to serve has been a great help to me,” she said. “They go out of their way to do a little extra.”

Unseen
Biddle said seniors often find themselves isolated within the walls of their own homes, physically and emotionally.

With family members scattered across the country or busy with their own lives, and the vacant hours afforded by retirement, the 65 and up age bracket sometimes face an identity crisis.

When Biddle retired, he experienced this first hand.

“I was looking forward to retirement, but when you’re used to getting up, going to work, all of a sudden you’re at a loss,” he said. “In the past it has been men, but with more women working they experience it too,” he said.

Often, Shepherd Center clients are proud people who have worked all their lives, never depending on anyone. As such, they can be embarassed to ask their own church of family for help. Shepherd’s Center serves as a third party through which seniors can be open about needing help.

Their issues, Biddle said, range far and wide.

“Especially with stroke victims or people with muscular degeneration, something as simple as climbing a step ladder to change a lightbulb can become impossible,” he said.

In addition, Biddle said he was astounded at how many seniors have trouble obtaining food. Being isolated or ill can keep them from the grocery store, and if medication or assistance bills are high, seniors may not have the money to pay for both. Shepherd Center also transports these clients to food pantries and soup kitchens.

“It would surprise anyone to see the monthly tally of our clients we take to get food,” he said. “Working with them, you get very attached to them. I’ve met some of the nicest people doing this. Our goal is to empower older adults, and help use their wisdom and skills for the good of the community.”

riley.manning@journalinc.com