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As it celebrates its third anniversary, Stay at Home in Wilton is appealing for volunteers to drive members and perform simple household tasks. Among those already helping out are, in front, from left, Joan Starr and Winkie Chesley, and in back, Dick King and Verna Barreft.

Senior group marks three years of growth

by Jeannette Ross, Editor

After what is expected to be another sellout performance by popular musician Dr. Joe Utterback at 4 p.m. on Sunday, April 21, at Wilton Library, a cake will be rolled out, perhaps a song will be sung, and Stay at Home in Wilton will celebrate its third anniversary. The organization, which began with 30 or so members, has grown to 72, and hopes to hit the 100 mark by the end of the year. And although there is a sizable cadre of volunteers, more are always most welcome.

"We have grown very nicely, I think," said Ken Dartley, a member of Stay at Home's board of directors. "We've been steadily rising and we want to make sure we have enough volunteers to take care of new people." Stay at Home in Wilton (stayathomeinwilton.org) helps senior citizens do exactly that, stay in their homes by providing services such as transportation, assistance with small household jobs, and references for reliable tradespeople for larger projects.

The group also plans myriad social events, including trips to destinations such as Arthur Avenue, Sheffield Island, the New York Botanical Garden, and DiGrazia Vineyards in Brookfield. Men meet for brunch once a month at Orem's, and there is a monthly ladies' luncheon.

Recently, a group of Stay at Home volunteers met with The Bulletin at the home of transportation coordinator Joan Starr. Verna Barrett is one volunteer who sees the intrinsic value in an organization such as Stay at Home. She has worked in a number of nursing homes and said so many patients told her, "If I only had a little more help I could have stayed at home longer." "People should be able to stay at home," Ms. Barrett said. "Transportation is what people really need. I always felt bad they didn't have an option why not give people a chance to be independent a little longer?"

Winkie Chesley, who is both a member and volunteer, agreed on the importance of transportation as well as the social connection. "I had been a hospice volunteer for 15 years," she said, but when she gave it up she "felt like I wasn't part of the community because I didn't do anything." When she got a Stay at Home flyer in the mail she volunteered. When she needed assistance in getting to an eye doctor she joined. "I could not have gone to the eye doctor without Stay at Home," she said.

Although there are other transportation options in town, none are as flexible or will take a member as far as Stay at Home. Ms. Barrett has a monthly date with a veteran to take him and his wife to the VA hospital in West Haven. "I found I can drop them off at the hospital, run errands, and go back to pick them up," she said.

"You get a sense of fulfillment providing the service," said Dick King, who knew Phil Richards, one of the organization's founders. "Phil said, 'Do you want to get involved?' and I said yes. He said, 'You're on the board,'" Mr. King recounted with a laugh. When he missed a board meeting he later found out he was head of fund raising. He drives a couple who both suffer from infirmities. Membership in the group "has changed their lives." In addition to taking care of their transportation needs, Stay at Home set them up with some vital services for chores they could no longer see to themselves.

Sometimes it's the little things, like hooking up a stereo system or activating an XM radio. The service aspect can be a big help even to seniors who are still independent. "One of the things we run into is they tell us, 'We don't need it yet,'" Mr. King said. While he doesn't really "need" it yet either, he realized the company he always called to clean out his septic system is no longer in business. "I'm going to call Janet [Johnson] and see who they recommend," he said. Janet Johnson is Stay at Home's paid coordinator.

Three years ago, Mr. King said, Stay at Home's founders thought the in-home help would be the most-requested need, "but we found the socialization aspect was much bigger," he said. In addition to trips, there are activities here at home, including holiday luncheons, events with Wilton High School and more. Members offer suggestions on what they would like to do.

"We're fun people doing fun things," Ms. Chesley said. The social aspect is vital for older people who move to one of Wilton's condo or Avalon communities to be near their children but in doing so leave any friends behind. "They ask, 'How am I going to have social contact?'"

Social contact is the focus of rides offered by another volunteer, John O'Brien, who describes himself as "very chatty." "I'm a people person and I take it slow with them," he said. If he is taking someone to a doctor's appointment he always asks on the way home if they need to do any shopping. A former sales executive, Mr. O'Brien is retired at 57 and said he wanted to do something while his wife was still working. "It's a need that people have I can help them out." he said. "A lot of these seniors shouldn't be driving. One woman, who is 89, just gave up driving and she joined."

Membership costs $360 per year for a single person, $480 per couple. All volunteers, tradespeople and services are vetted by Stay at Home before being offered to members. In many cases, Mr. King said, board members have already used the services and been pleased with them. Organizations like Stay at Home in Wilton are becoming more numerous. Mr. King said there are three others in Fairfield County New Canaan, Darien and Greenwich and about 100 across the country with 200 more in development.

Stay at Home is launching its annual fund-raising appeal this week. Donations help support independence among its members. Checks may be sent to Stay at Home in Wilton, P.O. Box 46, Wilton CT 06897. Donations may also be made online at stayathomeinwilton.org