The Thanksgiving week weather system caused nightmarish travel conditions for Denver residents and put pressure on homeowners and businesses to clear their sidewalks even as many streets were still locked in ice.
Fortunately, a number of local organizations coordinate volunteers to shovel the walks of elderly residents or others physically incapable of doing so. But with a new, albeit smaller snowstorm predicted to hit the Denver area this weekend, Volunteers of America's Colorado branch, which operates a program called Snow Buddies, is currently suffering from a severe shortage of Good Samaritans.
"At this point, we've got about 315 seniors who've asked for help, and only about 25 volunteers," says Vanessa Clark, VOA Colorado's PR and marketing director. She adds that similar efforts directed through the likes of Denver's Snow Angels, Catholic Charities, the Denver Regional Council of Governments' Area Agency on Aging and the Seniors' Resource Center are struggling to find enough shovelers, too. From what she's heard, "other charities and municipal groups that do this are in the same boat. To our knowledge, no one has a surplus of volunteers."
Michael James, who's both the vice president of marketing and development for Volunteers of America in Denver and a Snow Buddy himself, has some theories about why this shortfall is occurring. "It's occasional, not regular," he says. "You can't build it into your schedule. You have to be available on an on-call basis." At the same time, however, the time demands aren't overwhelming. He's been a Snow Buddy for six of the eleven years the program has been in existence, and over this span, he says, "it's not really been that much — 45 minutes or an hour twice a month or so. But it's been more the last couple of years."
Maybe that's why the number of Snow Buddies has declined from fifty or sixty to half that number.
Still, VOA tries to make the process as convenient as possible. As Clark explains, "We try to pair Snow Buddies to seniors who live within two miles of them, because if it's a really snowy day, you need to be able to get there. We just ask that people shovel within 24 hours or so. Often people do it on their way home from work."
Volunteers are also required to submit to a $25 background check, since they'll be going to someone's home. But interacting with owners or residents isn't a requirement. Rather than knocking on the front door, James often simply gets to work after an inch or two of snow has fallen, because, in his view, "it's really important for our clients to feel safe and secure in their home."
Clark echoes this observation. "If you're using a cane and you're not that surefooted and you need to get your mail or get to a doctor's appointment, it's hard to get out. And when you have the kind of snowfall we just had and it's cold for a week, that creates a dangerous situation for neighbors, mailmen, everyone."
As a result, "Our phones have been ringing off the hook since our first big storm in October," Clark notes. "But the calls we've been getting are from people who need the help. We're not getting the calls from volunteers offering to help. And it's so hard. We have seniors who are on the phone in tears. Every time it snows, we get more requests, and it's heartbreaking when we can't meet the need."
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Some volunteers are trying to fill this gap. For instance, Clark says, "one volunteer has taken on six homes, which is pretty amazing."
She sees the Snow Buddies program as "an easy way for people to volunteer. It's not an intense commitment, and it's a way to literally help your neighbors."
The act of goodwill is rewarding, too, James stresses. During the last storm, he recalls, he was in mid-scoop when "I looked up and saw this little hand waving from the kitchen. It was just the client's way of saying, 'So glad you're here. Thank you.'"