While good deeds may be their own reward, the D.C. City Council is considering turning them into more concrete benefits: a promise that people who give their time to help others now will get an equal amount of free help themselves someday if they need it.
The proposed program is aimed at encouraging more volunteer services for the sick and the frail elderly while giving healthy individuals an opportunity to insure themselves, in effect, against the high costs of in-home care by "earning" the services of future volunteers for themselves and their families.
The council's Committee on Human Services yesterday unanimously approved legislation to try the idea for three years.
Volunteers would do chores and care for elderly, sick, disabled or mentally ill people, but would not provide professional services that require licensing, such as skilled health care. The chores could include housekeeping, home repairs, fixing meals, transportation or staying with an ill or confused person to give the person's family a respite. The volunteer would earn one hour of service credit for each hour of service performed.
The District government would keep track of the credits and guarantee that the promised services would be available to those who have earned the credits. If no new volunteers are available to provide the services when needed, the government would provide them.
Council member Polly Shackleton (D-Ward 3) said she introduced the bill to help address "the widely unmet need for home-care services, in the long run a much less costly and more humane alternative to institutionalization."
Spokesmen for Mayor Marion Barry's administration expressed reservations, however, saying it could have an adverse effect on "true volunteerism," in which a person does a service without getting anything in return. It also could be expensive to implement, particularly if the volunteers need extensive training.
If the District government had to provide services itself to redeem the earned service credits, that could be costly as well, according to representatives of the D.C. Department of Human Services.
Florida and Missouri established volunteer service credit programs last year, and in the District the Greater Southeast Community Center for the Aging has developed a pilot project of its own.
The legislation is supported by several nonprofit groups that rely on volunteers.
"It has been our experience that the life span of a volunteer is very short without built-in incentives to maintain interest," Sheri Deboe, program coordinator at the Information Center for Handicapped Individuals, told the Human Services Committee at hearings earlier this year.
Deboe said the number of calls to her group seeking help for disabled people in need of homemaker services has increased greatly.
Ethel Weisser, representing the D.C. Grey Panthers, said she was pleased that older people were recognized as providers of services and earners of the credits as well as potential recipients of services.