South Hills Interfaith Movement calls on volunteers for CheckMates program - SHIM

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South Hills Interfaith Movement calls on volunteers for CheckMates program

Tribune-Review –Kathryn Powell calls her new friend every Monday.

The two chat about everything from how the Steelers performed Sunday to tips for keeping in touch with long-distance family members.

But most importantly, Powell, 70, of Mt. Lebanon, looks for signs to ensure her new 91-year-old friend is in good health.

It’s the purpose of CheckMates, a longstanding program of AgeWell Pittsburgh, that nonprofit South Hills Interfaith Movement (SHIM) expanded this winter through a partnership with United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania and Jefferson Regional Foundation.

The need is there, said Jim Guffey, SHIM executive director.

“As families have become more spread out, we know some seniors have potentially become more isolated,” he said. “The main goal of the program is to break down the isolation that seniors might feel when they get older.”

In the South Hills, 19 percent — or nearly one out of five — individuals are over 65, SHIM reports. Of those, 78 percent depend on friends and family as their only source of help. AARP reports 35 percent of seniors are lonely.

“What we’re really trying to accomplish is to show the community that just giving a little time can really help a senior,” said Heather Sedlacko, director of programs for seniors and people with disabilities at the United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania. “Our goal is to help seniors live healthy and happy lives at home with dignity.”

CheckMates has been in existence in Allegheny County for nearly a dozen years, with about 200 calls being made each week by 25 volunteers, said Amy Gold, coordinator of the CheckMates program run through AgeWell Pittsburgh.

The program brings senior citizen volunteers to AgeWell at the JCC in Squirrel Hill and the South Hills JCC to make weekly calls to other senior citizens. The only requirement for call recipients is that they be 60 years or older and live in Allegheny County, Gold said.

She tells stories of the successful friendships that have been built through the calls, which are geared toward helping the recipients feel less lonely.

Callers also are trained to look for signs: Does their call recipient’s voice sound different? Did they recently fall? Are they having trouble getting food?

If there’s any indication the call recipient is in need of help, the volunteer callers contact Gold, who will connect them with other resources to meet their needs.

“They’re really building relationships,” Gold said.

With access to volunteers and resources in the South Hills, SHIM saw the already-successful program as a perfect way to help senior citizens by having volunteers make calls from their Bethel Park hub, Guffey said.

“We’re really copying the wheel,” he said.

Already, SHIM has lined up between 10 and 15 volunteers.

They’re receiving the training already perfected by AgeWell Pittsburgh, including how to look for signs when a call recipient says something like, “I’m cold in my home and I just got a shutoff notice” or “I just fell down the stairs,” Guffey said.

One stipulation is the volunteer caller and recipient cannot meet in person. It’s a safety measure taken to protect all parties involved, Guffey said.

Calls can last as short or as long as the recipient likes. Once the relationships form, calls tend to get longer, especially with the “talkers,” Gold said.

The program is just as beneficial for the volunteers who genuinely enjoy the conversations, organizers say.

“Everybody needs another friend,” Powell said.

For more information or to sign up to receive calls through SHIM’s CheckMates program, contact Mary Amatangelo at 412-854-9120 or

Stephanie Hacke is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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