Volunteers Make a Difference for Washington County Clients

By Johanna S. Billings


Volunteer Wendy Sparrow of Cutler and Laura Larrabee, a resident of the Marshall Healthcare Facility in Machias, hold hands during a recent visit. Sparrow is a volunteer with the Down East Hospice Volunteers who assist clients in Washington County. (Photo by Johanna S. Billings).

In a lounge at the Marshall Healthcare Facility in Machias last week, Wendy Sparrow chatted with resident Laura Larrabee.

“I love to hear the history of [Larrabee’s] life,” said Sparrow, of Cutler. “Her time as a youth is so much different from what I knew.”

For the past year and a half, Sparrow has donated her time with the Down East Hospice Volunteers, a state-licensed nonprofit organization serving residents of Washington County facing end-of-life issues, said Director Barbara Barnett.

“Hospice isn’t about giving up,” Barnett said. “It’s about making choices.”

Both Down East Community Hospital and Calais Regional Hospital donate office space to the group, whose main office is in Calais. But, the group is not affiliated with either hospital.

“We are a totally separate entity,” she said.

The organization’s monetary support comes from fundraising activities, donations and grants. It receives no money from federal, state or local governments, she said.

The group, which currently has about 70 volunteers on its roster, is always seeking more in order to meet the needs of clients all over Washington County. 

“We’re down in Steuben and we’re up in Grand Lake Stream,” said Barnett.

Those interested are invited to participate in training Saturdays, Oct. 1, 8, 15 and 22 in Calais.

“We are willing to help with gas cards,” said Barnett, who wants people who don’t live in the Calais area to be able to afford to come.

Those who wish to participate in the training program must get an application and have a pre-training interview with Barnett.

“They can’t just show up,” she said.

Barnett emphasized the training provides time for potential volunteers to discuss their concerns and express preferences in terms of the kinds of clients they want to work with and whether they want to visit them in their homes or only in nursing homes or hospitals.

Once they complete training, volunteers get to decide when they are available and how much time they can give.

“The volunteers have a lot of input into what they would be comfortable with,” said Barnett. “Once they take the training, they are never going to receive a call saying ‘you have a client and you have to be there on Tuesday at 10 a.m.’”

Volunteers do not provide any medical care, she said. Their purpose is to provide companionship for clients and respite for their caregivers, who may need time to go shopping or to appointments. One caregiver, for example, said she doesn’t need any help except to have a volunteer come over on Sundays so she can go to church. 

Barnett said the organization works to find good matches between volunteers and clients. 

Stephanie Larrabee, Laura’s daughter, agreed.

“I think that the initial interview that Barbara did was very effective and helpful in lining [mother] up with a volunteer,” she said. “They took the time to really match someone to her personality.”

Having Sparrow visit her mother gives Stephanie Larrabee peace of mind, she said, adding her mother enjoys Sparrow’s visits “very much.”

“I like to be there toward the end of life to provide comfort and company,” said Sparrow, who is originally from Utah. 

She moved here when her husband took a job with Down East Community Hospital. When she came out to look at houses in the area, she saw a hospice volunteers flyer in a restaurant.

“I just noticed it and I thought that would be so interesting,” she said. “It kind of called to me.”

Sparrow said she has formed friendships with clients and, yes, she has lost some of them. But, she said, “I’m not uncomfortable with end of life.

“I have enjoyed every minute of it,” she said.

Barnett said no special background is required to become a volunteer. Volunteers are required to take 18 hours of training to become licensed but the hospice volunteers group provides 25 hours to give them plenty of time to talk about “what if” situations.

“We talk about all those what ifs because everybody worries about them,” she said.

Chief among those concerns is privacy. Remembering they are not guests, volunteers must keep confidential everything they see and hear.

“We’re going into people’s homes,” she said. “We’re not always seeing everybody at their best.”


To register for the training call 207-454-7521, ext 126, or 207-726-5087 by Sept. 27.