When Barbara Milsk, Manager of CJE Volunteer Services, reflects upon her serendipitous suggestion that CJE volunteer Janice make a “friendly call” to older adult Gladys, she laughs and announces that she has a new title: “Just call me, Yenta, the matchmaker.” This story begins back in October 2017 when Milsk was recruiting participants for CJE’s Friendly Caller Program in which CJE volunteers reach out and call (or visit) elderly adults who are isolated, lonely and, because of physical or other restraints, can’t easily get out of the house to socialize. It’s also a way of conducting a regular safety check on the older adult which might not happen otherwise. At that time, Milsk identified Gladys as someone who would benefit from a call and Janice was available as a volunteer. So Milsk suggested that Janice call Gladys. The result was a beautiful union of two unique individuals who readily hit it off and continue to talk on the phone many months later.
During a recent three-way call conducted so Milsk could observe their interactions, she says “I’m just so happy to have made this match. This was a good ‘shidduch’! That’s Yiddish for matchmaking!” She also tells Janice and Gladys: “The two of you are both so symbolic of the success of this program. You’ve been able to start as strangers and end up as friends. From what I can tell, you are both a necessary part of each other’s lives, and I just love the way that this has progressed.”
They both agree, and Gladys adds: “I just love to hear your voices every time you call, and it means that you are all very concerned about me, and I appreciate everything that has transpired between us. So I thank you.” Janice chimes in: “That goes for me too!”
Their conversation proceeds like this:
Gladys: How are you doing, Janice?
Janice: I’m doing fine. It’s wonderful hearing your voice.
Gladys: Likewise. Sometimes when I don’t hear your voice I feel very lonely, so I have to pick up the phone and try to find you.
Janice: Yes, we’re in it together.
This is just one of many conversations that have transpired in a short amount of time. It seemed an unlikely pairing at first. As Gladys puts it, “We haven’t met as of yet. You see, I live in the inner city of Chicago and Janice lives in the suburbs.” Gladys is 87 and lives alone, and Janice is 66 and lives with her husband and her dog Disco.
At first they were talking once or twice a week, but then things accelerated. Janice explains, “We had so much to share, and ‘to be continued’ started becoming ‘good night’ and ‘good morning.’” Soon they were talking practically every day, in the morning and in the evening. The story of the development of their friendship falls somewhere on the spectrum between commonplace and extraordinary, depending on your point of view.
Gladys says, “We didn’t know each other when we started.” And Janice adds, “I guess we found that we had so much in common. For example, when we got more acquainted Gladys told me that I shared a name with someone very special to her.”
Gladys continues, “My daughter’s name was Jan, just like Janice, and I think that is when we realized that there could be a strong connection.” Gladys matter-of-factly mentions that her daughter died from a drug overdose six years ago: “She had graduated from college and everything, but then she fell in with the wrong people.” Gladys is eager to share this tragic story because she believes that “passing on the story may help someone avoid the same outcome.”
She continues, “Janice seemed to come into my life after I got over with the sadness, and she sort of replaced my loss to a certain extent. Janice became like a daughter to me.” Whispering, Gladys says, “In a sneaky way, I just secretly adopted her.” Janice laughs.
Originally from Fort Worth, Texas, Janice also receives support from Gladys and finds their connection remarkable:
“I’ve learned so much from Gladys! Someone I know was from the University of Mississippi in Greenwood, and Gladys’ husband was from Greenwood. She has shared interesting details about that part of Mississippi and places that I’d been. Gladys has also talked about her mother and brothers, and how music was such a big part of their lives. Her brothers actually formed a quartet called the ‘Greenwood Southerneers.’ I Googled them and was able to enjoy videos of the group that showed how present they were in the lives of so many people. Also, Gladys’ brother went to a college in Hawkins, Texas, and I have cousins who went there!“
Gladys is eager to tell her story:
“I was born and raised in a little country town called Bolton, Mississippi, and I walked five miles to school every day–rain or shine, sleet or snow, as they say. My daddy had his own farm that he inherited from his daddy. I went to junior college, and then went on to Jackson State, where the great Walter Payton [star running back for the Chicago Bears] also went. I got married and moved to Chicago in 1955, and I’ve been here ever since. I went to work for a hospital because I’ve always wanted to help people.
As an African American living in the South, I experienced a lot of things that you may have read about. But a lot of those things didn’t leave me bitter because I grew up in a ‘god-filled’ home, and we all understood. And I just enjoy Janice so much because she understands. It’s sort of important to me to share that I went so far with nothing and came out with a pretty decent education.”
What else do they talk about?
“Janice and I talk about every little thing that will comfort us, you know. We try not to go to the sadness. Sometimes we talk about politics a little bit–yes, we bring that in. I have enjoyed Janice so much and all her stories, and she has given me great inspiration. It seems like I’ve always known her.” Janice, who concurs with Gladys’ assessment, is confined to a wheelchair, but that doesn’t stop her. Her spirits are high and she peppers her conversation with humor and wit:
Janice: I’m in a power chair and I can dance in it. I do as much as I can in this chair.
Gladys: That’s OK, as long as you’re dancing. I’ll come over and show you how to dance!
Janice: That would be wonderful. Maybe we’ll keep my husband company, too. I don’t know if we do with all of our conversations. He just sits and listens, but he doesn’t miss a beat!
Gladys: I’m looking for a husband, Janice.
Gladys: I would love to meet you Janice and I’d like to fix you one of the nicest southern dinners that you’ll ever eat. Then I can come over to your house and show you how well I can dance.
Janice: Yes, yes!
Gladys: I just love when I talk to you. When you don’t call, and I can’t get you on the phone, it bothers me–just like you’re my daughter. And if I don’t hear from you, my day doesn’t go well. We have a great relationship.
Janice: You’re beautiful inside.
Gladys: Janice, I’m making BBQ ribs, lima beans and corn bread from scratch. If you want to come over you’re welcome.
They both laugh and the call ends. Thus, with the help of CJE, these two women have bridged a seemingly insurmountable distance and established a strong friendship based on common bonds, laughter, caring and joy. It’s a testament to the power of what a difference a simple phone call can make and the potential of CJE’s Friendly Caller Program.
If you’d like to call or visit an older adult who is alone and might need some companionship, you can volunteer for our Friendly Caller Program. Contact Volunteer Services at 847.929.3040 or firstname.lastname@example.org.