Wanted: Groups of volunteer shovelers to help out seniors and disabled people struggling with snow removal this winter.
Last winter, about 100 people in Spokane County called for help to clear their sidewalks. Without a helping hand, they often skip doctor visits or don’t go to the grocery store. So Aging & Long Term Care of Eastern Washington is sending out a distress call before winter hits.
Especially needed are volunteers from churches, schools, businesses, community centers and clubs for a new initiative, Adopt a Neighbor.
“Our seniors really worry that they’re going to get fined by the city because they can’t get their sidewalks clear, so they will call asking us for a resource,” said Sheri Riehl, an ALTCEW benefits enrollment specialist.
The agency found snow-removal help in the Spokane area for 80 callers in 2022-23, but 20 residents on a waiting list didn’t get support because of dwindling numbers of volunteers.
The organization needs at least 20 to 25 new groups to commit this year. As of late October, it had only three volunteer groups available to help five people, based on ZIP codes.
“It’s not enough,” Riehl said.
Retired nurse Cindy Bishop is among those seniors who have called the organization for help. Because of longtime back issues, she can no longer shovel snow next to her Garland-area home.
“I do walk with a cane, and there is no way I could do snow removal,” said Bishop, 69.
“I’m pretty active, but there are certain movements like bending that really increase my back pain, so I really appreciated the help. Plus, I have slipped on the ice a number of times, so I don’t want to risk falling either.”
Bishop, who also suffers from vertigo, had back surgery about 16 years ago. Sciatica, scoliosis and degenerative disc disease plague her. At work years ago, she accidentally stepped inches into an elevator drop-off, aggravating back issues.
For the past two years, she said ALTCEW connected her with a church group to shovel snow off short pathways.
“It was some young men from the Mormon church, young missionaries,” she said. “It’s just my sidewalk leading up to my house, and then the sidewalk in front of my house so people won’t slip. I did go out and talk to the young men and said, ‘Thank you.’
“They were very nice to talk to. I was pretty pleased with the amount of times they came out.”
Spokane resident Cheryl Schmidt, 70, got a cardiologist’s order to avoid snow-shoveling, and so did her husband.
“It makes it twice as hard to breathe, and twice as hard on the heart,” she said.
Along with a heart disability since age 59, Schmidt suffered a mini-stroke. A fall shattered bones in her face – repaired with “screws and chains” – but it’s still painful in the cold.
“With arthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, it’s just that winters are harder.”
When she called ALTCEW for snow removal help a few years ago, a school group sent “five or six young boys.”
“They’d be out here shoveling snow, and they’d make paths for my dog out in the backyard,” she said. “I have one small dog who can’t go through the big piles of snow; he needs a little help. It was funny because two of the boys were having a snowball fight trying to make us happy, I swear, while the others were shoveling.”
Some neighbors help occasionally, if they have the time.
“The ones that were the most helpful just moved, so I’m not quite sure what will happen this year. Definitely, we will need help this winter.”
ALTCEW also needs volunteers to help residents with snow removal in Stevens, Pend Oreille, Ferry and Whitman counties. The agency sent information to the city of Spokane to spread information about Adopt a Neighbor.
Each group that signs up can choose to help one or two neighbors in a ZIP code area – preferably more, but according to what the volunteers can handle, Riehl said.
“When they tell us that they’re ready to volunteer, they choose the number of neighbors they want to adopt, as well as the location,” she said.
The agency will coordinate with groups, with the understanding that each entity has vetted their volunteers and knows they don’t have criminal records. Riehl said the program can’t sign up individuals for Adopt a Neighbor, because it isn’t set up to check that person’s background.
If residents call about snow removal to ALTCEW’s helpline at (509) 960-7281, coordinators will ask permission to send names and phone numbers to a nearby organization, if available. From there, the resident and group will keep direct contact for the rest of winter.
“We don’t give out addresses,” Riehl said. “The information has to come from the individual.”
Riehl said the agency informally reached out in the past, often with churches and schools.
“We never had enough, so this year we decided we were going to try something new.”
From the volunteers’ perspective, it’s a way to reach out to neighbors, said Brenda Norton, First Presbyterian Church of Spokane’s director of adult ministries.
The church began offering winter help last year through ALTCEW. Its volunteers removed snow for five residents, two of whom got help all winter. Occasionally, seniors were confused and tried to pay, Norton said. This year, they hope to give a flier or card about it being a service.
“We just said, nope, this is a gift to you,” she said. “As a church, we’re here to serve our neighbors.”
Among church volunteers, they’ve tapped a high school senior and a retired military man in his 40s with a snow blower and truck.
“He’s all in for this year,” she said.
The residents offered appreciation.
“For most of them, it’s elderly people and it’s dangerous for them to be out in the winter, because if they fall, it would be pretty catastrophic.”
So far this year, First Presbyterian has enough volunteers to help two residents, but Norton hopes to ask church small groups to adopt more neighbors.
“The challenge is you don’t know when it’s going to snow, and you have to be willing to do it,” Norton said. “You do your own driveway, and then you go do theirs.”
Bishop hopes the Adopt a Neighbor initiative takes off.
“It’s a real need,” she said. “I have quite a few friends who have back issues, also, and to go out and shovel snow is hard – even for people who don’t have disabilities, with the weight of the snow and the risk of falling.
“I look at falls as very serious at this age because you can break something. You just don’t want to take that extra risk.”
Groups interested in Adopt a Neighbor can call ALTCEW at (509) 960-7281 or send an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.