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Chicago Tribune/Daily Southtown

Read this feature about Merri Fefles and her work as a volunteer with PLOWS Council on Aging. And, it’s the first article in a weeklong series that appeared about people who are “the change they want to see in this world.” Merri is a wonderful example of someone who is the change they want to see in this world. Thanks for all you do for us!

Good Neighbors: Merri Fefles has a soft spot for seniors

By Donna Vickroy Daily Southtown | Dec 20, 2019 | 2:08 PM

 

Note: Anger, divisiveness and discord may have dominated the headlines in 2019, but as the late Fred Rogers once said, even in scary times, there is goodness. In this year that brought his spirit to life through the inspiring film “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” we are lifted by his reminder: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

Indeed. To close the year on a positive and hopeful note, this week we introduce you to some of the helpers in your neighborhood.

Merri Fefles is both haunted and buoyed by something her late mother once told her. “She said, ‘When you get to be a certain age people stop looking at you. You become invisible,’” Fefles said. "I am very cognizant of that now."

Fefles, who spent 10 years caring for her sick mother until she passed in 2017, said that remembrance is with her every minute she is helping seniors get the services they need through PLOWS Council on Aging.

A professor of political science currently on sabbatical from Moraine Valley Community College, Fefles volunteers regularly with the nonprofit that serves senior citizens in 20 south suburban municipalities, including Worth, Blue Island, Oak Lawn and parts of Robbins. She began a few years ago delivering meals to homebound seniors with her niece and nephew, Elena and Billy Hajjar of Tinley Park.

“It was really eye-opening for all three of us. We’re from this area and never realized how many people struggle. I feel almost ridiculous now. But you kind of live in your own little bubble. I didn’t know that until I started working with PLOWS,” she said.

 

Today she has expanded her role and now helps people over age 60 navigate the complex sea of forms that can be a barrier to benefits such as Medicaid, SNAP food stamps, help with home improvements. She also steers callers in the direction of the resources they need, whether it’s meal delivery or adult protection services.

 

“Now we’re doing LIHEAP (Low income heat energy assistance program), which gives people some assistance with their gas or electric bill,” she said. “You feel a sense of responsibility working here,” she said. Some days, she added, she gets so wrapped up in callers’ needs that she doesn’t want to take lunch. “Sometimes I’m moved to tears by people’s stories. So many remind me of my own mother. I miss her every day,” she said.

 

Fefles, who lives in Tinley Park, said the work she does for PLOWS is rewarding because it’s necessary.

“I love working here. Everything is very tangible. You do something for somebody, and there’s immediate instant gratification -- for them and for me,” she said.In addition to helping people sort through the jargon, she is a friendly voice of comfort and confidence, said PLOWS spokeswoman Jen Petterson.

“We are so lucky to have people like Merri who come to us and volunteer. She supports advocacy, guiding people on different resources out there. A lot of the government forms are very complex. As a nonprofit, we can guide people through those forms,” Petterson said.PLOWS, Petterson said, relies on volunteers to help serve 16,000 seniors annually.The fact that Fefles connects with so many individuals on a personal level, Petterson said, is a bonus.

Fefles, 43, grew up in Palos Hills. She attended Stagg High School and MVCC before earning a bachelor’s from Elmhurst College and master’s degrees from Arcadia University and Arizona State. She completed graduate school in 2001 and landed a part-time teaching job filling in for a professor. A week after she started his classes, he fell ill and passed away suddenly.

“I took over his classes and got hired the next spring,” she said. “He was a wonderful man. And I thank God every day for this job.” It was while she was working on her second master’s degree and caring for her aging mother that she chose to fill a volunteer requirement through PLOWS. “I’ve always had an affinity for older people,” she said. “I never had grandparents. Maybe in a way I’m taking care of other people’s grandparents.”

 

She said the work also creates balance in her life.“I teach political science, so I keep up with all the toxicity in the country today. It seems we can’t talk to each other anymore,” she said.“I help so many people who just want to talk to somebody. It makes me realize how many people just want someone to converse with, someone to care,” she said. “I think if people just had real conversations it would break down a lot of the toxicity there is now in our environment. It’s easier to find common ground when you talk face to face,” she said. “Working here sort of restores my faith in humanity. I feel I get more out of it than I give," she said.

 

As a teacher, she said, she may occasionally get a student who comes back to tell her that she influenced a career decision. “But this is different. You see people everyday and help them everyday. And they’re so grateful. Makes me really appreciate what I have and the people I have around me,” she said. “You see so many people who don’t have anyone.”

Seniors have so much to offer people, she said, yet they’re often not given the opportunity. “It almost seems like once you get to a certain age, you’re deemed unnecessary. We kind of push them off to the side,” she said.

“I wish we could harness their wisdom, energy and talent.”

 

Donna Vickroy is a South Side native who graduated from Richards High School and Illinois State University. She has been a reporter, columnist and editor and has received four Peter Lisagor Awards from the Chicago Headline Club, as well as numerous Associated Press and Illinois Press Association honors.

 

Learn about our incredible volunteers and our community work in this wonderful Chicago Tribune/Daily Southtown article below.Call us at 708/361-0219 if you know someone who might need daily home-delivered meals or if you are interested in joining our team of dedicated volunteers. 

What to do in retirement? ‘We can do something for our neighbors,’ says this Palos couple

By DONNA VICKROY DAILY SOUTHTOWN | DEC 06, 2019 | 1:45 PM

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s bright and early Monday morning, and though there are a thousand other places a retired couple can be — lingering over breakfast? wintering in Florida? — Jan Hill and Joe Matula are navigating the snow-dusted streets of Palos Heights.

 

Life’s been good to these long-married Palos Park residents and so now, with time on their hands, they’re returning the favor.

“Even though we’re old, we’re in relatively good health,” said Hill, a former Moraine Valley Community College reading professor. “We can do something for our neighbors.”

That something is delivering a hot, nutritious meal with a side of comfort and conversation to 26 homes each Monday morning.The meal this day consists of sweet tangy meatballs with brown rice, corn and a salad. There’s also milk, a roll and some sliced pears.

 

The menus and the routes are organized by PLOWS Council on Aging, a nonprofit that helps people over age 60 who are physically or psychologically impaired. PLOWS is an acronym for the area it serves: the townships of Palos, Lemont, Orland and Worth.

 

Catherine Stowers, program manager for PLOWS, said each Monday through Friday, some 500 meals are delivered to clients across the region who fit the criteria of being temporarily or permanently unable to prepare a

meal. People who have difficulty standing or getting to a store, for example, might qualify.

PLOWS Council on Aging volunteers Joe Matula and Jan Hill

deliver a meal to an elderly resident on Dec. 2, 2019, in Palos

Heights. (Gary Middendorf / Daily Southtown)

 

The deliveries can be short-term, such as following a surgery, or long-term for people who are elderly and living alone, she said.Because social isolation is a big problem today, Stowers said the meals should serve two purposes: provide nutritious sustenance and be a well-being check on the individual.

 

“It’s conversation, sharing stories, a friendly face,” she said. “It also helps family members feel better. Maybe you can’t visit your loved one every day but you know Jan and Joe are seeing them every Monday.”

 

Hill remembers how her mother was able to care for her aging parents because she didn’t work. These days, she said, “people have to work and a lot of older people are home alone all day long. It’s kind of comforting to have somebody check in on them once a day and give them a hot meal.” Besides, she added, “What goes around comes around. We might be in this situation in the future.”

 

Once approved by a caseworker, a client’s delivery information is added to a route, Stowers said. Recipients are asked to make a suggested donation because the program is only partially funded by the federal government, she said. But if an individual can’t afford to give, the meals keep coming, she said.

 

Hill, 69, and Matula, 70, joined the fleet of volunteers in November 2018. After a rough January, during which their car got stuck in a client’s driveway, they’ve settled into a routine, discovering short cuts and little known cul de sacs in the process.

 

To some on the route, Hill and Matula are just a delivery service. To others, they’re a vital connection to the outside world.“Everyone is different,” said Matula, a former teacher, school superintendent and Governors State University professor. “Some people just reach out the door, take their lunch and that’s it. One gentleman, a war veteran, talks for a while, telling us stories. When the weather’s nice, he sits outside and waits for us.”

 

They’ve learned about clients’ former careers, far-off family members and lost loved ones. One 98-year-old woman who still makes it to church every day confided that she’d recently given up expressway driving. Matula and Hill try to keep up with the news of everyone on their route, even devising a cheat sheet with the names of recipients’ pets.

 

If someone doesn’t answer the door, or the client seems “off,” there’s a protocol to follow, Hill said.

Indeed on this morning, there’s no response to a rap at one door. Hill tries calling the resident’s phone and when that also goes unanswered, she notifies the office to follow up with the client’s family members.

 

Matula, who says the couple struggled to spend time together when they were working and raising their now-grown children, enjoys sharing the route with his wife. Hill seconds the emotion. “He’s got two artificial knees and I have a bad back. So we kind of help each other.” They also empathize with clients’ mobility issues.“In our next life we want to study engineering because there’s gotta be a better walker out there somewhere. People come to the door but the door opens inward, so they have to back up to open it,” she said. Some walkers don’t have a tray. Those that do, have one that can’t support the meal.

“You just suffer with them, watching them trying to get around,” she said.

The commitment provides balance to a week that often finds Matula on the golf course. Golf, he said, is “a self-centered sport. So it’s really nice to be able to do something for someone else. And it’s nice to have a route so close. There’s not a lot of driving with this.”The worst part, Hill said, is having to listen to sports radio the morning after a Bears loss.The best? When their route is complete, they treat themselves to lunch at a nearby restaurant.

Donna Vickroy is a South Side native who graduated from Richards High School and Illinois State University. She has been a reporter, columnist and editor and has received four Peter Lisagor Awards from the Chicago Headline Club, as well as numerous Associated Press and Illinois Press Association honors.

Channel 4 TV Series

Channel 4 Palos Heights, IL TV features a monthly segment about PLOWS Council on Aging. 

 

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