Volunteer Neighbor Network
May 31, 2007
Elizabeth Lowenstein, VNN
Van Ness North Cooperative
Everyone here is familiar with the phrase “aging in place” but in 1993 the term was new
to us. That was the year that IONA Senior Services decided to see what people needed to be
able to stay comfortably in their homes to be able to age in place.They developed a brief list of
questions to see what kind of help people might ask for -- help with grocery shopping, getting to
and from medical appointments, a daily phone call, etc.
I live in a high-rise apartment building with 456 apartments, and a population the size of a
small town, in the upper Connecticut Avenue “NORC” -- Naturally Occurring Retirement
Community -- so we were a natural to take on such a project. We took that list of questions and
made it a two-way questionnaire “ do you want help to get to a doctor’s office” or “could you drive
someone to the doctor’s office”?. Four to one responses came in that indicated that people
wanted to help others, not be helped themselves. So the Volunteer Neighbor Network was born.
We had all these people who wanted to help B and not very many who needed help. We
had to find a way to use the would-be volunteers and develop a social network that would make
our building neighborly, and make it possible to ask comfortably, without embarrassment, for
help when it was needed, and to keep volunteers on tap and busy and useful for the moment
they might be needed. (I compare it with a hospital emergency room B you want never to need
it, but you want it to be there waiting and fully staffed and equipped when the need arises).
And so, like Topsy -- or any typical bureaucracy -- we just grew. We called ourselves a
Volunteer Neighbor Network, and we aimed to break through the isolation that can exist in such
a large apartment complex by developing a network of friends and neighbors who could help
one another in time of need.
Those same questions continue to be the core of our activity B grocery shopping, picking
up prescriptions, transportation to medical appointments, etc., although we have added to them
picking up mail for someone who can=t get downstairs or is out of town, watering plants for
residents who are away on vacation or on business trips, and a variety of such staple activities.
Some of these are particularly easy for us as we are lucky enough to have a full-sized Giant
grocery store accessible to our building and a pharmacy next door B and the Metro at the corner.
From the beginning we have met once a month to plan. Someone suggested that one
volunteer on each floor would be good, so they would be aware of the needs of the people on
that floor and could Acoordinate@ their needs with the volunteers available B and so the AFloor
Coordinator@ system was born. Now, many years later, we have a network of almost 100
volunteers, including 40 Floor Coordinators, and we provide a host of services of all different
kinds. Our Questionnaire, which goes out every Fall, is much more extensive. And our
volunteers are listed in our annually-updated Directory, which lists a host of services.
Grier Mendel has been good enough to duplicate our questionnaires and other
information about our group, all of which is available on the information table. Please pick up
copies if you are interested, and join us at our Lunch-Table Discussion at 12:15 to continue the
For a period of about 18 months we had extensive work going on in our building,
including replacement of all of our domestic water pipes. Because we had our system in place,
we could ask for special volunteers to help neighbors prepare for the work that would be taking
place. You will see reference to that in the 2006 Questionnaire. Then we had our Giant close
for expansion and upgrading, and we were able to ask for volunteers to help other residents with
their grocery shopping.
On an everyday basis, however, we have recurring needs. Many of us live alone,
without a nearby family. We may be new to the area, or perhaps we are so busy with work we
have little time to meet people outside the office. Some among us are elderly or have special
needs, and may be without a steady support team. For all of us, the Volunteer Neighbor
Network provides both a socially supportive environment and an emergency safety net. We=re
here when you=re down with the flu or nursing a broken ankle and need something from Giant
or CVS. We can get you to a doctor=s appointment or provide companionship for a shut-in.
And we sponsor an array of programs to improve health, to pursue a special interest, or to relax
and have a good time with sociable neighbors.
A network of coordinators on each floor can match neighbors needing help to
volunteers who can provide the help needed. A list of these Floor Coordinators is posted so that
one of them can be located whenever necessary.
The Network has been in operation for 13 years. As volunteers appeared with special
interests and abilities, our programs have expanded. We now sponsor programs for all ages.
We offer a Flexercise class for people with limited mobility and a Low-Impact Aerobics Class.
We have blood pressure screenings once a month and we offer flu shots once a year. We have
a knitting group which makes sweaters to be contributed to needy District children. We also
have purely social functions featuring companionship and homemade cookies in the lobby which
are an important locus for neighbors to meet neighbors such as our annual Valentine=s Day
A woman who moved into our building recently because her son lived here said that until
she volunteered to bake for our Christmas party she knew only two people in the building aside
from her son, both of whom she met through the VNN; now she says she has friends and feels
again as though she is part of a community. That=s how it works. Small steps but big results.
Our most popular program is our Film Forum. One of our volunteers shows movies in
our party room two or three nights a month, with special festivities to celebrate Oscar Night and
the Kennedy Center Awards presentations. She is incredibly good at finding excellent films.
In 1999 we added to our activities a PC Discussion Group led by another volunteer for
users and would-be users of personal computers. This has proved to be the next best thing to
having Bill Gates for a neighbor, especially for retirees who have lost the technical support they
had at work and for anyone else who doesn=t share room and board with a computer pro.
For a while we had a French Conversation group for people fluent in the language
which has a small but devoted group attending. We had a monthly Bingo game which had a
small but enthusiastic group of participants. We once had a very successful Weight Watchers
group. We are open to the suggestions of residents who may want to start new group activities.
Some of these programs come and go; some continue.
We have had a variety of Aoutings@ to the theater and to galleries and such. We might
tour the renovated Hillwood museum and gardens and have lunch together in their tea house. In
June we usually attend a Shakespeare in the Park performance.
We have a Halloween program of parents and children calling on residents for Tricks or
Treats. Children (with their parents) call only on those who sign up. It=s fun for children,
parents, and the host V.N.N.C., Inc. residents. We have very few resident children, but we
cherish those we have!
In short, we have tried to create a network of friends and neighbors who can call on one
another for a helping hand -- or a shared good time. Especially in time of illness or a sudden
problem, it=s good to know that someone next door or down the hall will be happy to give you an
assist. All you have to do is ask. It=s made a big difference in the attitude in the building. We
really do feel like neighbors and friends.
I have a friend who tried to do this in her neighborhood, and it didn=t materialize. But it
could be replicated in any apartment building, I think, with enough patience to wait for it to
develop, and someone to churn out a lot of announcements. Patience and persistence are
I think this could be done on an entirely volunteer basis, as we have done, or in
conjunction with a concierge service, if you are thinking of following that route. If you are
interested in trying something like this, you are welcome to ask any questions you may have.
You are welcome to come to our monthly meetings, if you are interested. Or call us. We will be
glad to help in any way we can.
One of our neighbors broke a hip. When he came back from rehab, a volunteer helped
him arrange his apartment to work conveniently for him, another got him a cordless phone,
others became emergency responders, and two Floor Coordinators checked on him periodically.
One of our neighbors even volunteered to give him cooking classes, as he was accustomed to
eating in restaurants since he was widowed.
Another neighbor called before she went into the hospital to see what we could do for her
when she came back. Her son came down from New York and stayed in her apartment while
she was in the hospital. We were able to call and assure him that neighbors were available to
fetch groceries, etc., for his mother when he left.
Some neighbors who have outpatient procedures cannot be discharged unless someone
- not a taxi driver - can go home with them. For those who have no family member available, we
can provide a driver or a companion to meet them and see that they get home safely.
We do small acts but they have a large impact.