volunteer heroes (part 2)

When Richard Ferricane, 74, retired in 2017 from a long career in information technology automotive engineering,  the Pleasantville resident found himself with plenty of surplus time.

An amateur saxophone player, he enjoyed jamming with his long-time jazz musician cronies. For a while, he tried his hand at math tutoring. Still, all that free time felt like a void that needed filling. “I knew I couldn’t just sit around and do nothing,” he says. Perusing an e-newsletter from Volunteer New York!, he spied an opportunity with Burke Rehabilitation Hospital in White Plains.

Ferricane knew of the venerable 100-year-old acute rehabilitation hospital and its reputation for treating patients recovering from debilitating injuries and illnesses, from spinal cord injury to heart attack and stroke. Still, his initial visit to Burke was eye-opening. “You walk into this hospital and all around you are people struggling to overcome significant health issues,” he says. “I saw a lot of opportunity to help just by offering a human connection.”

Following Burke’s two-week volunteer training program, Ferricane joined the hospital’s inaugural cohort of Patient Ambassadors, a program launched late in 2018. Two days a week, he is assigned a case load of about a dozen newly admitted patients. He meets with them twice: just after admission and shortly before discharge, with the objective of smoothing the way to a positive patient experience.

Burke patients often undergo many long hours of rigorous therapy. They may be dealing with a traumatic injury or diagnosis that has changed their lives forever. It’s a tough adjustment. Ferricane stops by a day or so after admission to get a feel for how a new patient is adapting.

He provides resources they might want to access and, oftentimes, he’ll arrange FaceTime calls with loved ones or visits from the clergy.

As the first to hear about a less-than-optimal patient experience, Ferricane acts as the conduit to a solution. For instance, if a patient complains of sleeping poorly, Ferricane’s report will be relayed to hospital staff for a solution: whether it’s new medication or simply readjusting the bed.

In all of his encounters, Ferricane brings his whole, best self to the task. When asked what he feels is the most meaningful thing about volunteering, he responds, “It’s knowing that in a small way, I’m making someone else’s life a little more bearable while they’re going through a hard time.”
Dog-lover Linda Scheffel raises, trains and fosters dogs who will one day serve as guide animals for people who are blind or visually impaired.

Since 2003, Scheffel has been a volunteer with Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a nonprofit organization that breeds, raises, trains and provides guide dogs for people with vision loss. Scheffel and her family have fostered a series of dogs, from puppies to young adults to breeding females—preparing them for lives of service. And Scheffel is utterly smitten with the whole process.

A tax lawyer and consultant who lives in Katonah, Scheffel has always loved dogs. But it wasn’t until her son Andrew needed a volunteer activity for school credit that the family checked out Guiding Eyes’ Home and Early Socialization program.

Volunteers take newly weaned puppies into their homes for a few days, acclimating them to the activities of an average household—the smells and noises, the new practices of walking on a leash and doing their business outdoors. “We’d all take turns walking and feeding the puppy and then we’d return them,” Scheffel says. “It was perfect for our family.”

Once the children were grown and out of the house, Scheffel ramped up her participation, now acting as a puppy raiser: housing and training young service dog candidates for about a year, teaching them “house manners” and social skills before returning them to Guiding Eyes for placement. “It’s a lot more work and responsibility,” she says, remarking on the three-miles-per-day exercise requirement as one factor. Still, she and her husband have found the task enjoyable and rewarding, fostering six dogs in the past eight years.

This past summer, Scheffel had three Guiding Eyes’ dogs in her home: a puppy she is raising, a breeding female she periodically transports to and from Guiding Eyes for mating and whelping, and a retired brood dog she took in after the dog was released for public adoption. “These animals are the best of the best. They’re bred for their excellent personality, intelligence and adaptability, and they come to you already well-trained,” she says. “You get to help Guiding Eyes do their wonderful work, plus you get to love and care for a dog during its best years.”

While some might find it difficult to let go of a beloved animal companion you might never see again, Scheffel is philosophical. “When you’ve done it enough, you get used to it,” she says. “For my family, this was an ideal situation. We always knew we were doing it for someone else.” She pauses. “But it’s true that you fall in love a little with every one of these dogs.”

Naomi Kinsler is a doer.

The Hartsdale resident and self-described workaholic has held down full-time jobs for 40 years, leveraging her skills as a mathematician, project manager, and computer science geek. When corporate mergers did away with her various roles, instead of retiring, she simply shifted her prodigious energy and people skills to volunteering.

A few years ago, Kinsler learned about Dorot, a non-profit that provides creative programs and in-home visits for older adults in Westchester County and Manhattan. The gregarious Kinsler gravitated to the organization’s Friendly Visitor program, during which volunteers and their companions listen to music, share hobbies, or go for walks in the neighborhood, among other activities. There’s no script—they do whatever both parties enjoy doing. Says Kinsler, “It’s a wonderful way to energize people who might otherwise be sitting all day with very little interaction with others.”

Kinsler’s first assignment as a Dorot Friendly Visitor was with a gentleman in his 90s. During their times together, the two would talk about music, movies and politics, engaging in lively conversations that Kinsler describes as “the best combination of topics.” Her next gig, visiting a 94-year-old woman who lives with her daughter, has morphed into a real friendship during the five years of their acquaintance. “We used to get together [prior to Covid] in her apartment while her daughter was at work. We’d exchange photos of our families, go for walks, and just talk and talk,” Kinsler says.

Pandemic restrictions have caused some of these comfortable rhythms to shift. Currently, Dorot, a word meaning “generations,” is restricting the Friendly Visitor program to phone calls. Two calls a week didn’t seem burdensome, so Kinsler took on another client as well. While she admits it’s more challenging to develop a relationship with someone she’s never met face to face, Kinsler is finding ways of learning more about her new charge, a woman with some cognitive decline. “Her son told me she sometimes forgets how to use the phone, so it can be hard to get hold of her,” she says. “But when we do get the chance to talk, she’s always so grateful and appreciative. We’re hoping to meet in person one day soon.”

For Kinsler, the satisfaction of volunteering comes from doing something that helps the volunteer thrive as much as it helps others. “It goes both ways,” she asserts. Do her clients ever thank her for her service? “Some do, but friends don’t usually tell each other that kind of thing. It’s understood that you’re both benefiting from the relationship.”

She pauses, then adds thoughtfully, “And you know what, if this program were to end tomorrow, it wouldn’t end the friendships I’ve made. You wouldn’t be able to stop me from calling.”

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