Missouri 4-H youth volunteers have launched a pilot program to provide comfort to elderly members of their communities who are experiencing social isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The youth volunteers are given a name and phone number of a senior and call at a prearranged time to talk to them in conversations lasting 5-10 minutes, according to information on the 4-H website.

The volunteers receive scripts that contain an introduction, an icebreaker and topics that center around health and wellness. A parent is required to monitor the call, which is made on a speaker phone.

The project is meaningful to 4-H Council member Kalyn Eckhoff, whose grandmother has been in and out of a nursing home in Butler for over six years.

“The nursing home is a very small place, and everybody knows everybody,” Eckhoff said. “I would go eat with her, and we’d talk to everyone, so I was already connected to a lot of the residents. Someone there helped me with a history project, and someone else is like another grandma to me.”

Eckhoff said that in this particular nursing home, not a lot of residents normally are used to spending time with one another.Now with restrictions in place because of COVID-19 the most challenging struggle is residents aren’t even allowed to see each other.

Most assisted living facilities and senior centers quickly closed off access to visitors as Missouri-based COVID-19 cases were discovered in March. Elderly persons are considered especially susceptible to the virus because of their age.

“My grandpa isn’t even allowed to go see my grandma,” Eckhoff said. “I know it’s been very tough on them, so hopefully this helps people like that.”

“We’re just trying to keep them involved with the outside world and give them someone to talk to,” she added.

Another 4-H Council member, Brendon Engeman, said that the teen volunteers seem to be having thoughtful conversations and the response is positive.

“I would like to see the program extend further than just 4-H and become something everyone can participate in,” Engeman said.

Missouri 4-H, a program of MU Extension, settled on the youth calling program as a measure that would engage teenagers as leaders and attempt to address the social isolation that many elderly people feel. 4-H is America’s largest youth organization that offers youth, families and adult volunteers ways to engage, grow and serve the community.

The project — 4-H CARES, an acronym for Children Acting Responsibly to Engage Seniors — is a recent collaboration project between Missouri 4-H, Virgin Islands 4-H and Louisiana 4-H, according to Bradd Anderson, Missouri 4-H leadership and communication specialist.

He reached out to the State 4-H Council members who are teen ambassadors for 4-H with the opportunity to lead the CARES Project and received eager participation.

“Right now, it’s being tested with a handful of youth at three different sites,” Anderson said. “We intend to have a much larger engagement; we just want to pilot it first. ”

Anderson reached out to MU Extension nutrition and health specialists who have links to senior centers and retirement homes in several counties. They are responsible for connecting the teen volunteers to a person who could participate in a phone call.

Although it’s early in the process, Anderson said the senior center directors have been very excited to work with 4-H and know many people who could benefit from the program.

Anderson said the project is just getting started.

“I would like to see it continue, and I would like to see it become a much more widespread project for Missouri 4-H,” Anderson said. “I think there’s a lot of opportunity here.”

For more COVID-19 related news, see our section dedicated to COVID-19 updates.
  • Sports reporter, spring 2020. Studying journalism. Reach me at oksnkb@mail.missouri.edu, or in the newsroom at 882-5700.

  • Molly Hart is an assistant city editor at the Missourian. She has previously reported on state government. She can be reached at mhart@mail.missouri.edu.

  • As senior editor of the Missourian, Fred Anklam manages general assignment reporters. He can be reached at anklamf@missouri.edu or in the newsroom at 573-882-5720.

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