When Bethlehem resident Sandra Takacs, age 73, began to lose her vision, she needed a way to get to her doctor appointments and run simple errands like grocery shopping.
The public buses did not stop at her house anymore, and the ride-share program she had signed up for wasn’t a good fit.
“It’s difficult when you have a hard time seeing, and I didn’t even know how close the drop-offs and pickups were,” Takacs said. “I used to have to try to get rides with a personal friend and the one that used to be able to do that became very sick.”
She then found ShareCare Faith in Action.
ShareCare provides free volunteer services including transportation, visitation, canine caregivers, shopping and one-on-one assistance to elderly or disabled people in Lehigh, Northampton and Carbon counties.
Located on the first floor of the Deanery of the Cathedral Church of the Nativity at 321 Wyandotte St. in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, ShareCare’s office is small and intimate with a personal space and desk for each of its four staff members, stacked with mementos, motivational posters and client files.
The organization’s slogan is “people helping people.”
Executive Director Lynn Marie Heiney said ShareCare was founded in 1991 by members of the Cathedral Church of the Nativity and was originally known as ShareCare Interfaith Volunteer Caregivers in the Lehigh Valley, providing respite care.
Funded by a new grant in 1997, the organization expanded their services to include volunteers who would transport clients and shortened their name to ShareCare Faith in Action.
The nonprofit organization recruits from local faith communities and the general community to have a larger volunteer pool. While located in a church, Heiney said they serve clients regardless of religious affiliation and do not attempt to evangelize or convert them.
The organization’s staff members are tasked with coordinating for the three counties. Each of them entered their roles with previous volunteering experience and a passion for helping others.
Bethlehem coordinator Celeste Fulcher has lived in the area for 27 years and joined ShareCare three years ago.
“I really enjoy this job,” Fulcher said. “I love what we do, and I love helping people. You realize that clients have accepted you into this personal space they have, and it really does touch your heart.”
Fulcher said she primarily deals with connecting clients to volunteers for transportation assistance, conducting assessments for new clients to determine their needs and training new volunteers in the Cathedral Church of the Nativity’s History Room, which is adjacent to the ShareCare office.
Fulcher said each volunteer has to go through a background check and training before they are cleared to volunteer.
The most difficult part of running ShareCare is recruiting volunteers, Heiney said, as they receive five to 10 new people who call in each week to request assistance.
Because clients are not charged, there is a large need in the community, creating a long line for services.
“We have a waiting list of over a hundred people wanting services in Bethlehem,” Heiney said. “Due to (COVID-19), we lost some volunteers, and we’re just starting to build back up.”
While there are some young volunteers, the majority of volunteers are retired and looking for a way to give back to their community.
Cathy Bailey is one of them.
A Lehigh Valley native of over 50 years, Bailey belongs to the Cathedral Church of the Nativity and discovered ShareCare five years ago.
She said she was looking for a way to stay connected with others after retiring from her full-time job as a nurse. She serves as the secretary and community representative on the ShareCare board of directors, which meets bimonthly to discuss grants and the allocation of money.
Bailey serves as a transportation volunteer, driving her clients to medical appointments, and helps them with their grocery shopping. She said she often helps the same five to six clients, and she is able to form close relationships through these interactions.
She said she regularly receives handwritten notes from one of her clients and recently got a Valentine’s Day card thanking her for all she does.
“Even just during the rides, I get to learn about their families and they get to learn about mine,” Bailey said. “It’s having an opportunity to actually get to know people, it’s not just like an Uber or taxi driver who you don’t speak to.”
As many of the clients don’t have family in the area anymore, Heiney recognizes life can get lonely. She said ShareCare works to give individuals a sense of belonging in the community, as volunteers’ kindness keeps ShareCare running.
“They actually build relationships and volunteers love it too because, for a lot of them, it helps them to stay connected with people,” Heiney said.
When one client wanted to travel to the Poconos to see the leaves change, Heiney said ShareCare found a volunteer to take them on an outing for the whole day to experience the autumn colors.
When another client was distraught and living in darkness, Heiney said ShareCare found a volunteer to help them to change their light bulbs — and also fixed a leak in their sink.
“So many of the clients will call and they’ll say, ‘I don’t know what I would do without you,’” Fulcher said. “We do things that help them on a daily basis to feel better about themselves and to still keep that little bit of independence that they might have.”
As a free service, Heiney said the organization relies on grants and funds to reimburse mileage for volunteer drivers and programming needs.
Fulcher said she wishes other cities would adopt similar organizations to help the aging population.
“There are so many people who live in senior housing and don’t have the ability or money to get where they need to go,” Fulcher said.
Both Fulcher and Heiney said they are always looking for ways to get the word out about ShareCare to recruit more volunteers. They primarily rely on word of mouth, putting ads in local newspapers and advertising on their website to spread awareness.
ShareCare is also looking for walkers to sponsor and participate in the “Highmark Walk for a Healthy Community” on June 3 at Desales University to raise money for their individual mission.
Despite the need for volunteers, Takacs said she has never had any difficulty getting a ride from a ShareCare volunteer when she needed one.
“The entire service has just impacted me so much and just the caring and kindness of the volunteers that take me and bring me home, you do develop a relationship with them,” Takacs said.
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