For the greater good: Friends for Life revamps finances to better serve elderly, disabled

Inez Russell (middle) founded Friends for Life, a nonprofit that serves the elderly and disabled, in Waco in 1989 after realizing the need for community and assistance these two groups have. In 26 years, the nonprofit has expanded to serve residents in more than 80 Texas counties. Photo credit: Rolando Rodriguez Soto

Friends for Life, a Waco nonprofit organization that helps seniors and people with disabilities, faced financial issues last summer due to significant funding delays, and has recently made changes to its budget to address the problem.

Inez Russell, the founder and executive director of Friends for Life, said she has been working to cut the budget, reduce expenses and eliminate cash flow problems. The nonprofit’s management is now in a position to build a reserve that will keep the organization from being vulnerable to funding delays.

Russell wanted to reassure the community that the funding delays were not caused by misuse of money, mismanagement or sloppy practices.

“When you have a hard time saying no to hurting people, you can stretch yourself pretty thin as long as you don’t have delays,” Russell said. “But if funding gets delayed, it can cause you to be late and cause problems.”

Friends for Life was founded in Waco in September 1989 to help the elderly and people with disabilities live independently for as long as possible. It protects and cares for those who are unable to care for themselves.

“These are people that, for whatever reason, just don’t have anybody,” Russell said. “I have a huge family, and it’s hard for me to imagine how hard it would be to not have anybody. We try so hard to make sure that these people know that there’s somebody that really cares for them.”

Friends for Life is currently working on a new department called supported decision-making. When someone that doesn’t have a family or someone to help them through important decisions, they can be placed in guardianship. The new program ensures that these people still have the opportunity to have their own rights and make their own decisions so that they can have an easier transition into independent living.

“We encounter a lot of people that outlive their family members, they don’t have family members or they don’t have a lot of people they can trust in their lives,” said Cindy Brown, co-director of the guardianship program. “Just having somebody go with them to make decisions is absolutely wonderful whereas we don’t have to go into a guardianship where they lose their rights in order to have help.”

A simple visit to the hospital in 1989 soon became 26 years of service to the elderly and disabled of Waco. While visiting her father, Russell heard a woman screaming and crying in a nearby room. She was close to 90 years old, and she told Russell: “I’m dying, and I don’t want to die alone. Please don’t leave me.”

Russell stayed and listened to her life story. She had children and grandchildren, but nobody was coming to see her anymore. Russell brought her flowers and a stuffed animal, and she read the Bible to her until the woman got better and went home. Nurses approached Russell asking her to comfort two other patients that didn’t have anyone to be there for them.

“I started calling people that I knew in other parts of the country and people in other parts of the state for an organization that would give the elderly a support system,” Russell said. “When I couldn’t find anything, I started Friends for Life.”

The early years of Friends for Life involved a few volunteers gathering to visit people in hospitals and nursing homes, offering company and assistance to those that no longer had anybody to care for them.

As Friends for Life expanded, it started independent living and quality of life programs, which helped people with things they couldn’t do for themselves anymore. The program ranges from a telephone reassurance program, a light bulb changing program, a ramp building program, driving clients to the doctor’s office, buying groceries and mowing yards.

“Each time we found a need, we first tried some other organization that did whatever it was someone needed,” Russell said. “If we couldn’t find one, we would figure out some way we could do it ourselves. Usually, that meant finding volunteers that could help us with it.”

Friends for Life started a guardianship program in 1990 for people who are unable to make medical decisions and that had no family who could intervene on their behalf. They currently serve 528 people in their program within 81 Texas counties.

The nonprofit also offers a money management program where it intercedes with creditors, creates budgets, assists with accessing benefits and helping people connect with financial resources in the community.

Friends for Life started its own adult day care center when Waco closed the city’s program in early 2000.

“If you have a community that doesn’t have a good adult care program, people start going to a nursing home too soon, family members have to stay home to take care of their loved one or people end up staying home alone who really shouldn’t be staying home alone,” Russell said.

The center is open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday, and it provides nursing care, nutritious and home-cooked meals, activities that include movie nights and bingo, and a place for social interaction.

Volunteers have the opportunity to interact and establish relationships with seniors and people with disabilities.

“When I walk in and the clients recognize me, and they run up to me and give me hugs, that makes me feel like I’ve really made a difference in their day,” said Kaufman senior Rachael Helpenstell, a volunteer. “It’s such a great experience. Even if you’re not comfortable working with this population, it’ll make you comfortable, and you’re going to want to come back.”

Nathan Brookshire is a regular visitor of the adult day care center. He said he likes the home-cooked meals and playing bingo with his friends. While the fair was in town, he had the chance to go with his friends from the center and hold a small deer in his arms.

Adult day care staff and clients are going to have the chance to participate in the Baylor Homecoming parade this Saturday. They will have special T-shirts made and candy ready to toss out to the children.

“I don’t know about an event that they’ve been this excited about,” Russell said. “We were afraid we were going to lose a bunch of them when we told them how early in the morning it was. It doesn’t matter what time. They’ll be there lined up and ready to go.”

Through Friends for Life’s many programs for the elderly and people with disabilities, Russell was recognized as a CNN Hero.

“I don’t think they picked me. I think they picked Friends for Life,” Russell said. “The exciting thing about the CNN deal was that we were able to connect so many people with programs where they would be able to reach out and help elderly people who are alone.”

For more information on Friends for Life and to learn about volunteering opportunities, visit their website.