While many people are taking their quick dips in the local swimming holes for granted, residents of the Northern Virginia Training Center often cannot go to the pool on hot days because of a lack of volunteers to supervise them, center officials say.
Excursions to the swimming pool are an example of the jobs volunteers are desperately needed for at the center, which houses about 280 mentally retarded residents on a 95-acre site in Fairfax County, according to Maggie Neel, director of volunteer services. Neel said about 200 individuals and numerous groups help at the center, but her monthly training sessions are still nearly half empty. The involvement of many of the groups is limited to infrequent visits and monetary contributions.
"We would like to have a lot more individual volunteers," Neel said. More are needed, she said, "just to take care of the regular needs of our residents. And there are so many programs here we could expand, so many programs we could improve . . . . You name it, they need it, and they need it over and over again."
Neel said the current volunteers are used throughout the center with whatever talents they bring. They sometimes work one-on-one with residents, or the volunteers direct large groups, she said. The also work in areas such as counseling, guidance, socialization, bus training, sex education, money management, crafts or manners.
Neel's assistant, Beth Duley Morlock, said volunteers can sometimes help residents in ways the staff cannot duplicate.
"One-to-one a volunteer does so much, but we (staff members) just can't do it," Morlock said. "The staff can't play favorites. What our people (residents) lack the most is having somebody coming one-to-one. All of them can move on and raise their skill levels if they have the one-to-one."
Neel said the volunteers must be at least 16 years old and are asked to promise to work at least two hours a week for six months. The volunteers' abilities and interests are then matched to the different jobs in the center, she said, because "it's important to the volunteers to buy into what they want to do." Neel said the volunteers become involved in the work not only because of its charitable aspect, but also to learn new skills or earn credit for work experience.
Neel said she would like to see more volunteers interested in working with direct care of the 20 to 25 residents in each of the units. Although some volunteers already work in the units, a few of the areas with severely retarded residents are lacking needed volunteers, she said.
Yet center officials admit the public still is sometimes frightened of or misunderstands the mentally retarded.
"Some people are scared," said Helen Perash, director of the center library, which depends on volunteers to operate. "It's interesting that working with the mentally retarded [WORD ILLEGIBLE] frighten so many, but it's not (frightening), and the rewards are overpowering."
"Volunteering here is not for everybody," Neel added, "just like volunteering for the Red Cross is not for everybody. But the rewards are here."
Joyce Sperry, who volunteers one night a week to teach arts and crafts, agreed. She had been teaching the class for about a year and a half, when she took last winter off.
"I missed it," said Sperry, a program analyst for NASA. "I found that night would roll around, and I would be restless."
Sperry said the program has made her much more aware of how lucky she and her family are.
"I think if you don't live with it (mental retardation) occasionally you don't think about it . . .," she said. "But one night a week I'm reminded how lucky I am."