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A helping hand when it's needed most

Sep 28, 2017 02:09PM ● Published by J. Chambless

Lori's Hands students provide companionship and help for those facing a long-term illness.

By John Chambless
Staff Writer

Sarah LaFave's mother, Lori, was a generous person who helped others, and that spirit of giving continues in a non-profit founded in her name.

Lori's Hands, based at the STAR Campus at the University of Delaware, links undergraduate students who want hands-on caregiving experience with people in the area who are living with a chronic illness. It's an ideal partnership that has dividends for both the students and the people who need help with daily chores, or just a little companionship.

“I spent a lot of time with my mom and was very close to her when I was growing up,” LaFave said during an interview last month. “I think that’s partially due to her being diagnosed with breast cancer when I was in first grade. After her initial course of treatment, my mom went into remission for several years, but her cancer returned in 2000 and she then lived with the disease until she died in 2003 when I was a freshman in high school.”

Lori's gift for caring for others made an impression on Sarah. “One of the things I respected most about her was that she always seemed to know just the right thing to do to brighten someone’s day or make someone’s challenges a little easier. She often helped in really practical, tangible ways and she preferred not to receive a lot of recognition for her generosity. She just kind of went behind the scenes and did little things that often made a huge difference.”


Sarah LaFave (left) formed Lori's Hands in honor of her mother. At right is Maggie Ratnayake, newly hired as director of programs.

 “I grew up in a small, very supportive community where I knew the names of all of the students and teachers in my high school, many of whom I’d known since I was in kindergarten,” LaFave said. “In 2007, I started college at the University of Delaware. That was a really exciting and fun transition, but one of the sad parts of it was realizing that all of the new people I was meeting would never know my mom, or be part of the life that my family had when she was in it. I hated that people I’d meet throughout the rest of my life might only know that my mom had died, but not really know much about how she had lived her life. Those little things are now at the heart of Lori's Hands, which sends University of Delaware students to the homes of people who may need yard work, a little housecleaning, cooking, grocery shopping, dog walking, paperwork or internet help, or just need a friendly person to talk to. While students do not provide personal or medical care, they do form deep bonds with the people they serve, and often maintain contact after they graduate.

“That was part of the inspiration for naming Lori’s Hands after my mom when the organization was founded,” she continued. “It gave me an outlet for talking about my mom’s life, her personality, and her giving spirit, rather than just the fact that she is no longer here.”

LaFave studied to become a nurse, but found that opportunities for interacting with patients were somewhat limited until the later undergraduate years.

“My nursing classmates and I were hungry for service opportunities that would allow us to interact with people like the patients we were studying to care for,” she said. “When we were sophomores in 2009, we started Lori’s Hands as a way to start working with individuals living with chronic illness, before we had the clinical skills or education to provide care for them in a medical setting.

“We decided to offer in-home support with non-medical care -- the types of things that I knew first-hand could become very challenging for families faced with a chronic illness. When my mom was sick, I was struck by the fact that the world keeps turning, even in the face of a health crisis. Your house still needs to be cleaned, groceries still need to be bought, and the lawn doesn’t compassionately start to mow itself.

Student Alyssa with Edna in her Newark home.

 “We thought that college students and community members diagnosed with chronic illness could be a perfect pairing,” LaFave said. “We students wanted to learn as much as we could about healthcare and the patient experience, and these community members had needs that we could help address.”

This year, Lori's Hands marked its eighth year of service by hiring its first full-time employee, Maggie Ratnayake, as director of programs.

A professional mental health counselor who specializes in art therapy, Ratnayake worked with LaFave previously and the two remained friends.

“My parents are true examples of social servants,” Ratnayake said during an interview at the STAR Campus. “They're incredible people. Even though they both had very busy jobs, they were taking care of everyone around them in their community, which they continue to do today. The small town in upstate New York where I grew up is really the definition of a community caring for each other. That's the environment I grew up in. I still want to be engaged in that. That's what Lori's Hands does.”

Ratnayake was drawn to Lori's Hands because the organization does so much for its clients. “Our program is free,” she said. “There's no charge to our clients. We see their 'payment,' if you will, as their willingness to talk to the students about their experiences. So our students are gaining valuable insight into the experience of living with chronic conditions. To hire a regular caregiver to go grocery shopping for you, or to do housekeeping, it's $20 to $25 an hour. Our students typically spend an hour or two each week with our clients.”

The program currently has 55 clients in the Newark area. Two volunteers are teamed up with each client. “Some of them are nursing students, some are physical therapy or nutrition students,” Ratnayake said. “We even have economics and accounting majors who are just interested in giving back to the community. If the student is an engineering major, for instance, we hope their volunteer experience would provide insight into the importance of universal design and building ramps. We see opportunities for students of all disciplines to learn a lot.”

Anyone over 18 who has a long-term illness or disability is eligible to request help from Lori's Hands. “Many of our clients do have other caregivers, whether it's a parent, a spouse, a child. But many of our clients are completely on their own, so our volunteers going to visit them might be the only companionship they get for a couple days,” Ratnayake said.

There are many benefits for students who take part, she said. “We've been surveying some of our alumni and many of them said that Lori's Hands is one of the defining experiences of their college career, in terms of shaping their future profession and just helping them appreciate the community around them.

“We are planning to expand our services here in Newark, as well as to other colleges and universities locally,” Ratnayake said. “So if someone's in a location outside of Newark, we don't have to say they can't join Lori's Hands. They could join a branch or chapter that's local to them. That's one of my goals over the next couple of years.

“The first six months I've gotten my feet under me,” she said, smiling. “We are planning to expand our services here in Newark, reaching more clients and involving more students. We see the potential for growth because of the need, both from our clients and our students. If I ask our clients why they stay involved in Lori's Hands, over and over again, they say it's the relationships that are meaningful to them. It's a breath of fresh air, a ray of sunshine, every week.”

For LaFave, the act of connecting students and the chronically ill just made sense. “Especially when we were first getting started, we spent a lot of time researching other service learning organizations,” she said. “There are lots of amazing organizations that do service learning work in other areas, such as Engineers Without Borders, whose college student volunteers provide capacity-building support to communities while gaining hands-on experience that helps the students to become better equipped for their future professions. That service learning philosophy guides the work that we do through Lori’s Hands. We don’t know of any other organization that is doing the exact work that we do.”

Hiring Ratnayake was a milestone for the organization, LaFave said. “Before her hire, our impact was limited by what our all-volunteer board and student leaders could handle administratively. We always have had lots of interest from both students and community members who want to join Lori’s Hands, but we didn’t always have the capacity to make matches as quickly as they would come in, or to fully support the number of students and community members who wanted to be involved. Through the generosity of individual donors and corporate and foundation partners, we raised the funds to hire Maggie, and as a result, we’ve already grown our capacity tremendously.”

Looking ahead, LaFave said, “we want to continue building capacity, continue building partnerships in the community so that we can grow the program here in Newark, and dive head-first into fundraising so that we can responsibly expand to other communities. Our model is incredibly cost-effective because our student volunteers do so much of the important work. We have lots of opportunities for community members to get involved with our work -- from participating in guest bartending events, to hosting fundraising parties at their homes, to forming teams to run 5Ks while raising awareness for Lori’s Hands.

“I hope, and believe it’s feasible, that Lori’s Hands will someday be a trusted community partner throughout the country,” LaFave said. “Our country’s population is aging and the prevalence of chronic disease is, unfortunately, rising. In the future, I think we will only have a greater need for organizations like Lori’s Hands.”

For more information, visit www.lorishands.org or call 302-440-5454.

To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email jchambless@chestercounty.com.

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