New Vistas For Volunteers, Virtually Speaking

Volunteers from the Lyric Opera of Chicago pose after teaching the first in a series of classes they hosted exclusively for VSC participants.

Powered by a cadre of dedicated volunteers, CJE’s Virtual Senior Center (VSC) program brings interactive web-based classes and a means of socialization through technology to isolated older adults throughout Chicago.

Let’s pull back the technology curtain a bit and meet a few of the friendly faces behind the latest VSC classes who have touched the lives of seniors in Chicago, New York and San Diego communities.

One Pot Wonders with Suzanne Kaplan

Suzanne Kaplan, who teaches the popular “One Pot Wonders” class featuring delicious, budget-friendly, kosher meals made in the crockpot, explores the origin of various
dishes with participants. She’s careful to introduce easyto- learn recipes with a rich Jewish history that use only simple ingredients. Her love of cooking and passion for seniors in the community led her to teach with the VSC program. She appreciates their sense of humor, knowledge, and positive attitude around meeting other people in the program, “They’re really trying to build a life, even though they’re nearly homebound.”

Having never taught a class before, her volunteer work has helped build her confidence and develop her own cooking skills. “Before I actually ever teach the class, I always make the recipes first to see if they’re good. Finding new ways to convert recipes has broadened my horizons, and sharing historical research about the origin of the dishes has encouraged terrific dialogues during class.”

Pick a Year in Art and Culture with Lee Reilly

Lee Reilly’s weekly “Pick a Year in Art and Culture” class explores culture, such as film, art, music and literature, that shaped a particular year in history. Participants choose the years they’d like to discuss. Some popular ones are an individual participant’s birthday year or one of a prominent figure, an electoral year, or a monumental moment in history, such as the day that John F. Kennedy died. “The class is a mix of memory, music, art, culture and history, and how the various parts of culture like music, commercials, advertising, film, literature, and admired figures play out in history,” says Reilly.

For example, participants explored the invention of the U.S. highway system in 1956, which propelled a conversation about the sensational impact this achievement had on their lives at the time. It conjured up treasured memories like long family road trips and how it dramatically eased the commute to work. There are also more serious discussions like what it was like to be a woman during the turbulent 60s.

Reilly, a professional caregiver with experience teaching at a number of universities, discovered the VSC program through her volunteer work with Caring Connections for Seniors in Rogers Park. This virtual program has been a new way of teaching for her, but equally as rewarding. “The technology is fantastic because you really do feel like you’re in the room with people,” she says. “They certainly seem to be enjoying each other. It’s so personal, and everybody has something to contribute. I think it reminds everyone how rich our minds are because we have curiosity on our side.”

Reilly benefits from her time as a VSC volunteer because “spending an hour once a week as a volunteer with some amazing seniors recharges me as a caregiver.” In her work, she is involved with the direct care of senior clients which entails grocery shopping, balancing checkbooks, refilling prescriptions, doctor’s appointments, etc. “While much of it is very intimate, there’s not much time to joke around and enjoy the absurdity, or experiment, that is humanity. It’s a really great experience to do just that through the VSC program.”

VSC participants can look forward to new programs, such as music history classes hosted by volunteers from the Lyric Opera of Chicago, as well as the staple fond of with Kaplan, Reilly and others.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of LIFE, CJE SeniorLife's quarterly magazine.