A Caring Voice on the Line

RSVP spreads kindness, one call at a time

Valentine’s Day comes only once a year, but for senior citizens — or anyone who’s homebound, living alone, and without family — there’s something important, even potentially lifesaving, about knowing the phone is going to ring every day, regular as clockwork, because someone who might have started out as a total stranger is kind enough to check in on you. Neighbor to neighbor. Friend to friend.

“It’s not exactly spreading random acts of kindness because this is a program that’s been around for 46 years, but we would like to spread more random acts of kindness by getting more people to get involved,” said Pegi Orsino, executive director of RSVP (Retired Senior Volunteer Program), which runs its Telephone Reassurance Project from two phone banks, one on Bluff Road in Amagansett and another in Smithtown.

“The program is basically to check on their well-being as well as create an opportunity to socialize a little bit,” Ms. Orsino added. “Sometimes we’re the only voice they hear in the morning. And we hear back all kinds of things.”

Like what? Ms. Orsino laughed and said the program has one man who just answers, “ ‘Good morning. Yes, I know, I’m still breathing.’ His kids enrolled him and he wants no part of it, but he answers every day. And we have other people who are very chatty and tell you all kinds of things, like, ‘Oh, my favorite Valentine? That was Harold. I dated him in high school. But don’t tell my husband!’ ”

Anyone can enroll to get a call from the RVSP program. Phone bank volunteers are also needed, especially in the Amagansett location, said Joan Butera, an RSVP liaison who organizes the staff there and helps make the daily calls to the 55 clients her office currently contacts each day. 

“We call people who live from Montauk to Riverhead,” Ms. Butera said. “I normally have around 10 volunteers. Right now, I’m down to only four. We need more.”

Ms. Butera said most volunteers find the program as rewarding as the clients who are receiving the calls. Volunteers are usually asked to spend about an hour and a half per day on the phones, and engage in as much or little conversation as they or the client may like. Some of the Amagansett volunteers pull double shifts.

“My volunteers are wonderful people,” Ms. Butera said.

Ms. Orsino said the fact that the program often features senior citizens talking to one another creates two-way benefits. She says some retirees tell her they volunteer for RSVP because they want to help people, and because they can identify with what the clients are going through. 

“We have a lot of folks who say ‘This isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be — this retirement thing. There’s nothing to do. Every day feels like Saturday.’ This kind of program is a way for them to stay lively and vibrant and engaged too. That can be very important emotionally, and cognitively too, because if you’re not expressing ideas and opinions, you’re going to get muddied in the water.”

“I mean, I’ve seen some daytime TV — it makes me want to be here at work too,” Ms. Orsino joked.

The daily calls are also important because RSVP will send help to clients’ homes for wellness checks when they don’t pick up. The first call RSVP makes is to a family member or friend, if there are any. The next call is often to emergency services or police. “You just get a feel for each person after a while, like who answers religiously on time, who might not,” Ms. Butera said. Sure enough, some folks have indeed taken a spill or fallen ill and are grateful for the help. 

“There are many people who should not be alone at this point, but they are,” Ms. Orsino said. “We try to do what we can.” 

Those interested in volunteering to make calls and those who would like to enroll to receive daily calls can contact RSVP’s Amagansett office at 631-267-8371.