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Seniors help young, old — and feel more alive

Nora Matallana sat at a bench-style lunch table helping a young girl with a crossword puzzle featuring words about outer space.

"I learned today about the solar system, and I completely forgot!" Matallana said jokingly.

For three years and counting, she has spent five days a week here, at the West Tampa Boys & Girls Club, helping the young ones with their homework or with other activities during the summer.

They call her "Grandma" or "Grandma Nora."

Because she has no relatives in the Tampa Bay area, the 17 kids ages 6 to 8 are her family, Matallana said.

"There's a lot of love in me," she said. "Not having anyone to give it to was sad for me."

Matallana, 75, lives in West Tampa, but her closest relatives are in Arkansas. She moved to Florida in 2006 to be closer to her son. Two months later, his job transferred him out of state. She was completely alone for the first time in her life.

She was afraid. She had panic attacks. Then she found a way to give care and to feel cared for, with her family hundreds of miles away.

• • •

Matallana is one of hundreds of volunteers for Seniors in Service, a Tampa Bay area program that pairs seniors with others in need, whether they are fellow seniors or children. Its headquarters are on Sligh Avenue near Lowry Park Zoo.

The nonprofit group is in its 25th year, but still has more people in need of its services than it has volunteers, said Nancy McWilliams, director of operations.

Anyone 60 or older can volunteer and receive a stipend to cover costs such as gas, McWilliams said. Volunteers make $2.65 an hour; the average volunteer receives about $53 a week.

Matallana said she doesn't volunteer for the money. Others said the same. The program, they said, makes them feel needed.

"I get happiness, I get joy," Matallana said. "I get more out of it than they get out of me. That's how much they mean to me."

The program teams up with other organizations — such as Head Start, the Boys & Girls Club and Aging Services — to fill in gaps where these programs fall short.

Services include foster grandparents, senior companions, volunteer caregivers, a bill-payer program and Spic & Span for Seniors, a cleaning service. Foster grandparents and senior companions are the most popular.

Seniors in Service will send volunteers to elderly people who can live on their own but need help with some tasks.

Take Jessie Lundy, 86. She has several health issues, including food allergies and gastric problems. She can't cook her own food or do her own laundry and must adhere to a special diet.

Three times a day, seven days a week, Maria Lopez goes to Lundy's apartment in the Lowry Park area to heat up her food. She is Lundy's "senior companion." Betty Harvey, who is 70, visits Lundy twice a week for four hours at a time to cook and package her meals for the week. She cooks with very little sodium and purees the food so Lundy can eat it.

Beyond that, they sit and talk, said Harvey, who lives in East Tampa.

"Miss Jessie has so much history," Harvey said. "It's all just so interesting to me."

Harvey has helped Lundy for almost a year, and Lopez has helped her for about five.

Lundy, who has received help from Seniors in Service for more than 20 years, said the program allows her to keep her independence.

"I would have been in a nursing home a long time ago if it wasn't for this program," she said.

• • •

Harvey has three teenage granddaughters at home. She has cared for one of them since the girl was 3 days old. Still, she puts in 40 hours a week at Seniors in Service, volunteering for six people. She also volunteers with the youth ministry at New Hope Missionary Baptist Church. She retired from the radiology department at the James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital in 2002.

When does she sleep?

"Sometimes," she said.

She continues to serve, she said, because she has to — it's her calling.

"I was chosen for that," she said. "We all have a gift …To be blessed, you have to become a blessing to others."

Bette Morris, 73, has volunteered at the Boys & Girls Club for three years. She says she has 115 grandchildren here and five at home.

"Volunteering helps a person to stay healthier, more alert," she said. "We should all learn this from each other."

Matallana said that without this program, she would become depressed.

"If I leave this, if I don't come back, I'd be sick in a month," she said.

The children clamor around their "foster" grandmas. The room buzzes with laughter and questions.

"I like all of them because they help me with school," said Tatyana Ousley, 7. When it's time to go home, she said, "I don't want to leave."

And when a grandma doesn't show up, the kids take notice.

"This has been my salvation," Matallana said.

• • •

Emma Rauschenberger, 81, always wanted to be a teacher.

She left war-torn former Yugoslavia in 1945 and spent seven years in an Austrian displacement camp. She came to the United States in 1952 and raised a family in Pennsylvania. She moved to Sun City Center in 2008.

Though Rauschenberger never got a chance to become a teacher, she is still able to educate children. She volunteers at Ruskin Head Start, where she works with individual kids who need a little extra help.

"I love being with children," she said.

She said that making an impact on the kids gives her a feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment.

"Seeing their faces light up when they can do something, finally, it just gives me a glow, too," she said.

Back at the West Tampa Boys & Girls Club, Matallana said that without the Seniors in Service program, she would become depressed.

"If I leave this, if I don't come back, I'd be sick in a month," she said.

The children clamor around their "foster" grandmas. The room buzzes with laughter and questions.

"I like all of them because they help me with school," said Tatyana Ousley, 7. When it's time to go home, she said, "I don't want to leave."

And when a grandma doesn't show up, the kids take notice.

"This has been my salvation," Matallana said.

Amy Mariani can be reached at amariani@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3374.

fast facts

Seniors in Service

• Started in 1984.

• Has given 4 million hours of service since its inception.

• In 2008, 673 volunteers gave 260,831 hours of service to more than 2,400 children and 850 seniors.

• The program helps people in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties.

• To volunteer or to

receive service, go online to

seniorsinservice.org, e-mail

info@seniorsinservice.org or call (813) 932-5228.

Seniors help young, old — and feel more alive 08/27/09 [Last modified: Friday, August 28, 2009 5:12pm]
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