How you can make ‘Caring Choices’
Fifteen years ago, Barbara Hanna was working as a public-health nurse in Chico. It’s the kind of job that makes a person acutely aware of the health problems people face in their lives, especially people who are poor or sick with HIV/AIDS.
She decided she wanted to do more. Despite the fact that she had a newborn son, she began organizing a group of service-minded volunteers. Volunteers are the lifeblood of a healthy, caring community, and Hanna knew that by organizing them she could improve people’s lives.
Fifteen years later, that group, Caring Choices, is going stronger than ever. It has sponsored or co-sponsored many valuable services, and is now building a regional Volunteer Center to connect people who want to be of service with nonprofits that need volunteers.
Hanna doesn’t have hard data on how many people her group helps directly, but she estimates that, “when all is said and done, in the course of a year, there are probably close to a thousand people whose lives we’ve touched.”
Right now she’s particularly focused on creating what she calls “spontaneous volunteer centers.” These are groups of people who, in an emergency, can be called upon to spring into action.
A good example, she said, was the recent oil spill in San Francisco Bay. The call went out to local volunteers signed up with spontaneous volunteer centers, and more than a thousand of them turned out to clean beaches and wipe oil off birds.
Hanna said she is developing memoranda of understanding with organizations such as the Red Cross and the county Office of Emergency Services to delineate just how such a group could be of help in a local emergency.
Caring Choices also continues to develop its network of volunteers through its Volunteer Center, which is affiliated with the Points of Light Foundation, the national group 1-800-volunteer.org, and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s California Volunteers office.
Next week, on April 10, Caring Choices is sponsoring a “volunteer fair” at the CARD Center. More than 30 local nonprofit agencies will be there, hoping that prospective volunteers show up to explore how they might best help others.
Carol Lee Freeman knows the power of volunteering. As someone who’s been a Caring Choices volunteer since the group’s inception in 1993, she’s had many opportunities to experience it first-hand.
Once, Freeman recalled, a young man on welfare came up to Butte County to visit his sister. With the help of Freeman and Caring Choices, he was able to find a job, get off of welfare and have a stable life.
“He said that if hadn’t been for me and Caring Choices, he probably would be dead by now,” Freeman said.
Before going to work at Caring Choices, Freeman volunteered at hospitals with the Family Services HIV program. It was during her hospital work that she met Barbara Hanna and decided to join her effort.
“Our mission is to improve the welfare of people in Northern California by providing services that are not readily available,” Hanna explained. The services include support for people with HIV/AIDS, fall prevention for seniors, transporting people who are unable to drive to doctor’s appointments, emergency food provision, assisting in the American Cancer Society’s annual Relay for Life, and a service that sends registered nurses into homes to make sure they are safe for babies and infants.
All of the services are free.
“I like the idea that we’re able to help,” Hanna said. “Everyone is able to do something, whether they’re in high school or senior citizens.”
Today, Hanna’s main job is running the organization—voluntarily. This includes applying for grants, recruiting and hiring VISTA volunteers to staff its two offices (in Chico and Redding), and trying to recruit more volunteers.
The VISTA members look over volunteer applications and decide which programs to place the applicants in.
Caring Choices also puts on activities and special events like ice cream socials—holiday parties for the people they serve. Freeman has helped put together and run many of these events.
“When we had a smaller group, the socials were held in the office conference room,” Freeman said. But as the number of volunteers and clients grew, the parties had to move to a local church and sometimes a park.
“We’ve made gifts, cooked food, asked for donations and make sure all of our clients get something,” Freeman said.
Freeman helped make quilts for National AIDS Day, in honor of loved ones who had died. Two of those who’d passed Freeman knew personally.
“There was a 10-year-old boy I knew since he was born,” Freeman said. “I was working in the hospital and was in the delivery room.”
Both mother and son had HIV and were clients of Caring Choices. The boy passed away 10 months after his mother died.
“At his funeral, his family gave me the crucifix that usually goes in the coffin,” Freeman said.
Freeman remembers a teenage boy at the funeral, a Caring Choices volunteer who had let the little boy play with and wear his hat. The volunteer placed the same hat in the boy’s coffin.
“These people allow you into their lives, and you get to know them as if they were your own family,” Freeman said. “There are so many people I’ve met, and they’re all so special.”