Spring Real Estate 2004

Publication Date: Wednesday, April 7, 2004

Home is where the heart is
Realtor volunteer group helps seniors stay in their homes

by Dana Green

Isobel Anderson, 100, still lives on her own in her Palo Alto house. She even does her own cooking, sitting at a small table in her kitchen to chop vegetables for her homemade soups and stews. But some chores, like tending to her small garden, had become too difficult.

Last spring, a team from the Realtor Service Volunteer Program (RSVP) came to the rescue, scrubbing Anderson's windows and weeding and pruning the garden.

"They've been here two or three years now. ...I really appreciate what they're doing," she said. "It's the only way I would get [these tasks] done."

Started three years ago by the Silicon Valley Association of Realtors (SILVAR), the annual, week-long RSVP program helps elderly, disabled and housebound individuals in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties with home-maintenance projects and other tasks.

Since its inception, the program has touched the lives of a growing number of seniors. On average, the group has helped 100-130 households each year since the program began, according to Nancy Goldcamp of Coldwell Banker, one of the RSVP program's founders.

"We're expecting more this year," she said.

As word of the volunteer program has spread, the group has received calls from as far away as Daly City, Morgan Hill and Half Moon Bay, according to Goldcamp.

In 2001, the SILVAR members, made up of Realtors, insurance agents, lenders, and other real-estate affiliated professionals, were looking for a hands-on project that would allow them to give back to the community.

"We didn't just want to have a fundraiser and give it away," Goldcamp said. "We wanted to see and feel the difference we made. When we saw the impact it was having, we knew we had to do it again the next year."

The impact has been particularly significant on homebound and frail seniors, according to Bertha Cervantes, director of Peninsula Volunteers Meals on Wheels. "One woman had a leaky faucet in the bathroom for months until [the RSVP volunteers] fixed it. For us, it's a little thing -- but for them, it's big. Some can't stand for three minutes at a time."

The goal of the program is to keep seniors in their homes -- not just surviving, but comfortable. "We have moved food down on their shelves so they can reach it. ...It keeps it safe and decent for them so they can stay in their house and remain independent," Goldcamp said.

"These seniors want to live in their own homes," Cervantes said. "Without this program, they might not be able to be there."

Applicants choose from a checklist of tasks -- and no task is too small. The volunteer teams have washed windows, connected fax machines, hung picture frames, changed smoke-alarm batteries and installed light bulbs. "One year we washed 200 windows," Goldcamp said.

Initially, some seniors were afraid to allow strangers into their home, according to Goldcamp. That's how Betty Schneider, a longtime Palo Alto resident, felt at first. "I was kind of skeptical when they first called," she recalled. But after the group came out and cleaned her gutters, she changed her mind.

"I was overwhelmed. ...They never mentioned selling houses. Seems to me they were trying to help me stay in it longer."

" 'What a sneaky way to get us to get rid of our house,' that's what many people told us," Goldcamp said. "Some people cancelled -- they felt intimidated. It broke our hearts. But the more people talk about it and it's known -- the less concern [there is]."

All the volunteers wear the same official t-shirt to clearly identify them as part of the program, Goldcamp said.

The volunteers spend months before the week-long campaign preparing for the event: conducting outreach, reviewing requests, organizing volunteers, and lining up pick-up trucks to haul away debris and carry tools, said Cindy Solomon, senior sales consultant at North American Title Co. and an RSVP volunteer.

"A lot of time and preparation goes into it each year -- we get better as time goes on," Solomon said.

Some requests are beyond the reach of the program. "We can change the furnace filter, but we can't fix their furnace," Goldcamp said. "What we can do is guide them to how to get [the job] done."

RSVP will call city officials to paint curbs or ask a volunteer contractor to help with a leaking pipe, Goldcamp said.

Cash and in-kind donations are vital to the program's success, according to Gerd Meissner, director of public affairs for SILVAR and the San Mateo County Association of Realtors (SAMCAR). Last year, RE Infolink, the association's mainframe provider, donated the volunteer t-shirts, and Ace Hardware offered a discount on supplies.

"It's been very helpful that local businesses have been very actively involved, providing tools and materials that are needed," Meissner said.

The positive feedback to the RSVP program has led to similar projects around the Peninsula. SAMCAR joined the program last year, and the Santa Clara Realtors association is starting a similar volunteer program this year.

Solomon said that the program reaps benefits for volunteers as well as recipients. "It's a very fulfilling experience, not just for them, but for ourselves," Solomon said.

"Many of them are minor tasks. [But] when we leave the house, they have smiles on their faces. They can't believe that a group is willing to do this work and not expect anything."

For Schneider, who bought her home in 1954, the group has helped her stay near the community center and the bus lines, to take long walks and enjoy the city's cultural activities.

"For those of us in Palo Alto who have had our homes here for 50 years, it's allowed us to stay here," Schneider said. "It's really a wonderful program."

Editorial intern Dana Green can be reached at dgreen@paweekly.com.

How to apply
The application deadline for the Realtor Service Volunteer Program is April 2, 2004. Homeowners or renters interested in receiving an RSVP application form can call SILVAR at (650) 949-9115 or SAMCAR at (650) 696-8200.
Forms can be picked up in person at Little House Senior Center, 800 Middle Ave., Menlo Park, and Avenidas, 450 Bryant St., Palo Alto.
Donations to the RSVP Program can be sent to SILVAR Foundation, 345 S. San Antonio Road, Los Altos, 94022.