By Sara Katherine Johnson
A referral came in to the Friends for Life center two years ago about a woman living alone and embarrassed to smile. She did not have any teeth because of cancer and could not afford dental or medical insurance.
Della Ryberg, the organization’s director of community development, was there that day and said the woman weighed heavy on her heart.
Through connections, they were able to get free dental services to the woman.
“We step in as advocates when no one else is there,” Ryberg said.
This month, Friends for Life celebrated 25 years of serving the elderly and disabled in Texas. It began in 1989 in Waco with Inez Russell, founder and executive director. Now, Friends for Life is present in 81 counties. Since their opening, they have served more than 22,000 people.
“We went from helping a handful to helping thousands,” Russell said.
The nonprofit assists the elderly and disabled by helping them remain independent as long as they can, Ryberg said. They also help take care of people who cannot care for themselves through various programs that include topics like financial exploitation, legal guardianship and independent living.
“It isn’t rocket science, it’s one person at a time finding out what people need,” Russell said.
The Carl C. Anderson Sr. and Marie Jo Anderson Charitable Foundation offered Friends for Life a $25,000 challenge grant in honor of its 25th anniversary. Once Friends for Life raises $25,000, the foundation will match it. There is no expiration date for the challenge and the center has raised approximately $12,000 so far.
Casey Moore, director of development, said a big part of the organization’s ability to use money well is the use of volunteers. Moore calculated the organization saved $692,000 by using volunteers in 2013.
Baylor’s student Medical Service Organization makes up some of those volunteers. Houston junior Nhat Hoang is a leader in the organization and is in charge of coordinating rides to and from activities at the different places they volunteer. This year, Hoang is managing about 20 student volunteers at Friends for Life every Friday.
“I started Friends for Life my freshman year, but when I first tried it, I was overwhelmed because they were super affectionate,” Hoang said. “Then sophomore year I signed up to be a cell leader for MSO and I was assigned Friends for Life. I thought, ‘This is fate.’”
The students volunteer mainly in the adult day care, a facility for adults with disabilities. A nursing staff, meals and activities are available throughout the day. Hoang said in the past, some students have given manicures, thrown parties and just hung out with the residents.
“It relieves all of my stress from the week,” Hoang said. “When you go there, they are the most carefree people. It makes me feel so good.”
Colorado Springs, Colo., senior Brittany Calder has been a Friends for Life volunteer a little over two years. She said it is just like hanging out with friends.
“Once you start building those relationships, you won’t be able to get enough of it,” Calder said.