Through an Andover nonprofit, volunteers spend quality time with people coping with life-threatening illnesses.
When Barb Otterness and Jan Rickbeil get together each week, they might fold laundry, make supper or just sit and talk.
These are little things, but very meaningful to both women. Otterness, a part-time preschool teacher, visits Rickbeil as a volunteer through Tamarisk, an Andover-based nonprofit that provides nonmedical assistance to people dealing with life-threatening illnesses.
Eight years ago, Rickbeil, 52, was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, a debilitating disease for which there’s no known cure. It’s getting harder and harder for her to get around, and her speech is greatly impaired.
Rickbeil’s three children, whose ages range from 17 to 22, act as personal care assistants to her while her husband works. When Otterness stops by the family’s home in Cedar, it gives everyone a much-needed break, Rickbeil said during their get-together last week, via a computer program that reads aloud her typed-up words.
Jeanne Haus, program manager for Tamarisk, said that’s what the organization is all about. Its mission is simple yet profound, she said: “We’re there to provide comfort and support to people” as they near life’s end.
If Tamarisk gets a call “from someone in that spot, we do our best to get a volunteer there right away,” Haus said.
Volunteers work in ways to meet the client’s needs. That could mean they do anything from running errands to playing games.
Usually, volunteers stick with a client until the end, which can be weeks, months or years. The service is free.
For people whose decline is slow, hospice care may not be an option. Often, they need help with everyday tasks or just someone to talk to, Haus said.
The same goes for their regular caregivers, she said. Also, in some cases, Tamarisk may work hand-in-hand with hospice care workers. Whatever the situation, “we walk that journey with them,” she said.
Right now, the organization has 40 volunteers who tend to a similar number of clients on a regular basis. One volunteer has been with the group since its start in the early 1990s.
These days, Tamarisk is getting more calls than ever. That’s why the organization is always on the lookout for more volunteers to do everything from home visits to office work, Haus said.
Volunteers go through an application process that includes background and reference checks and a 20-hour training program. They learn “what it means to serve in the midst of this, what their boundaries are and what they’re supposed to do,” Haus said.
The best medicine
Otterness says the volunteer gig feels like a natural fit. Although she’s always been a helper-sort, when she’s spending time with Rickbeil, it’s more like meeting up with an old friend — not work, she said.
They can relate as moms, cat lovers and people of faith. They also both like to “kid around,” and when they’re in the same room, laughter is usually part of the equation.
It’s nice to find common ground with someone, Otterness said. “I told Jan, ‘I wish I’d met you 20 or 30 years ago. Boy, would we have had fun.’ Jan told me, ‘At least we met now.’ ”