Dolores Villa (Noah Vernau Photo)
Dolores Villa knows a win-win situation when she sees one. As director of the Foster Grandparent and Senior Companion programs at the Chaves County J.O.Y. Center, Villa employs senior volunteers who provide the kind of care that is always positive, always mutual: friendship.
Villa has spent 23 years as a program director, a position where learning of a volunteer who made a lasting, positive impact in another individual’s life is an everyday occurrence. Villa has 13 volunteers in the grandparents program who work with children with special needs at Roswell Headstart and public schools. The volunteers are assigned three children who need help with basic skills like reading, comprehension and writing. The volunteers serve as mentors, tutors and friends — an experience Villa said rewards all parties.
“The volunteers give a part of themselves to these children, and these children get the assistance that a teacher isn’t able to give them one-on-one in the classroom,” she said. “Sometimes these children just need to know someone cares about what they’re accomplishing, and a hug will make all the difference that day. It’s not that their parents don’t care, but lots of times, it’s a single-parent home and that parent probably has to hold down three jobs.”
The significance of a relationship between a child and a wise elder is timeless and can be seen years after a Foster Grandparent relationship was built, Villa said. “No matter what grade these kids might be in, I hear from Foster Grandparents who see them at Walmart or the grocery store, and they’ll say, ‘Oh, Grandma, do you remember me?’ They still remember that person who helped them reach their goals, and that bond stays with them.
“A lot of these children probably don’t have their grandparents any longer, or their grandparents live in another state. So they call these volunteers ‘Grandma Shirley’ or ‘Grandpa,’ and they seek that bond.”
Volunteers in the Senior Companions program give respite for caregivers and provide companionship for seniors in the J.O.Y. Center’s Adult Day Care program, which is for seniors in the beginning stages of dementia or Alzheimer’s.
Villa said when her mother Frances suffered a stroke four years ago, she gained a new perspective of how important the J.O.Y. Center is to families affected by illness. Frances had worked at the J.O.Y. Center as a client service agent and as a receptionist before suffering her stroke, and eventually returned to the J.O.Y. Center as a client.
“If it weren’t for Adult Day Care or Senior Companions, I wouldn’t be able to continue working,” Villa said. “It’s a blessing to have this so we can continue without disrupting her world and having to place her in a home. I know there are a lot of other families that probably do the same thing.”
Volunteers work with her mother daily, Villa said, and demonstrate the kind of dedication, patience and compassion it takes to be a Senior Companion.
“Whether it’s through the Foster Grandparent or Senior Companion programs, it takes love and understanding and lots of caring.
“I have the best volunteers in the state of New Mexico. They go out and give 200 percent of themselves and they really care about who they’re working with. They do it out of love. It takes a very special person to do it.”
Villa recalled how one of her volunteers always went above and beyond for her companion. “It did not matter to this person how much snow we received or if we were on a two-hour delay or we were closed,” Villa said of the volunteer. “She would go visit her client and make sure they made it through the night and had something to eat that day.
“I would say, you can call (the client) on the phone and please don’t put yourself in danger, but she’d say, ‘No, I have to see him for myself, I have to make sure he ate a little something for lunch.’ That is true dedication.”
Villa said seeing her mother work at the J.O.Y. Center for so many years was an inspiration. As a client service agent, Frances took seniors to appointments and delivered meals to their homes.
Villa first volunteered at the J.O.Y. Center in the late 1980s, became site manager in 1989, then program director in 1991 and never looked back. She describes herself as a workaholic whose only hobby outside of working with seniors is spending time with her family, which includes her husband Raul, her son Alex and her grandson Jeremy.
“I like working with seniors,” she said. “I like making their lives a little better.
“You see a lot of seniors who have to make the decision of whether to buy their medicine, buy food or pay a bill, and I want to be there for them to make it easier so they don’t have to do without.
“We’re all a family here. Everyone here is a part of my family.”