ALTON — Rose Blanchard, 82, had all she could manage buying weekly groceries. It was a significantly steep hurdle bringing them up the five steps to her house.

She’d put a bag on the first step, sit down beside it, hoist it to the next one, and slide up backwards step by step until she and the bags reached the top – a process that required her to rest afterwards for about 15 minutes.

“It was a project. I’m lucky I didn’t fall down," said Blanchard, who has COPD, osteoporosis, spinal stenosis and nerve damage that reduces movement and strength in her legs. She relies on a rolling walker to move around her mobile home.

“With COPD, I couldn’t breathe. Once I got it in the house I had to sit down and rest.”

Thanks to Anton Wilson of Gilford, a volunteer who came to her assistance through Helping Hands Senior Support of the Lakes Region, Blanchard now has a ramp instead of stairs. Wilson, a contractor, bought the materials and finished building it for her last week.  

“What he’s doing, you don’t know what that has done for me inside,” said Blanchard, placing her hand to her heart as Wilson took measurements for a side railing. “You just don’t find that any more.”

It’s a blessing for Blanchard and other older area residents who need help. Thanks to its rapid success on Facebook, and nearly 170 volunteers who have signed on since Helping Hands started in March to assist sheltered elders during the coronavirus, its mission is poised to expand and extend. Founders Erika Willette of Gilford and Sarah Boelig of Laconia have applied to convert the growing volunteer effort from a loose and informal group to a nonprofit organization registered in New Hampshire – which will enable it to raise money, apply for grants and ultimately satisfy more requests into the future. Willette said 100 percent of the money collected will go to filling senior needs.

At a time when nonprofit social services and charitable organizations have been struggling to muster funds and meet burgeoning demand during a pandemic that is especially dangerous for the elderly, Helping Hands clients say is a godsend – and a testament to the contagious nature of good will.

“It’s good, and it’s rewarding,” said Wilson, as he inspected the railing for Blanchard’s ramp. Wilson responded on Helping Hands’ Facebook page after Willette listed the particulars of Blanchard’s request. “Everybody needs help,” he said. “Someday, I hope someone helps me.”

Helping Hands began this spring as a food pantry in Boelig’s garage, stocked mostly by donations of staples and non-perishables. The supplies were delivered to seniors referred by churches or social services, or who messaged the group’s Facebook page, or who phoned or emailed Willette for help. The volunteer army and local requests grew exponentially: by word of mouth, through information and an application circulated in the city of Laconia’s weekly newsletter, and through networking on Facebook, which connected people during mandated social distancing – when isolating at home became necessary for seniors and those with chronic medical conditions.

Willette received calls for all sorts of help, including picking up prescriptions, shopping, and providing transportation to medical appointments. Over time, the nature of the requests broadened.

“Some people call and ask for home-cooked meals because of an inability to cook or purchase food,” and volunteers pick up free meals at the Boys and Girls Club, and deliver them to their homes, said Willette. “Some people just seem to need people to talk to. We’ve had a few people ask for assistance repairing or replacing their roofs. We’ve had people asking for stoves, or a push broom. Willette is compiling a list of area resources and social service providers geared to specific needs.

“We help them fill out applications,” she said. “There are a lot of programs, but not a one-stop shop.” One elderly man who contacted Helping Hands didn’t know how to read or write, she said. “Unless they know who to call, they’re sitting home, doing without.”

Helping Hands Senior Support has served several hundred people in just under four months, including 15 seniors who regularly require meals to be delivered. One older woman in Laconia needed rides to eight doctor’s appointments.

Their gratitude is overwhelming, said Willette. “We do something small for them and they turn around and ask, how can we help you?” Willette said. “One of the ladies told me her generation was brought up to help their neighbors, but we don’t live in a world like that anymore, and the pandemic proved it.  ‘Everyone was home, but no one came to check on me,’ she said.”

“We’re all in this together, and there are a lot of people who can’t get out, or prefer not to get out because of the risk,” said Nancy Brown, who puts together the city’s newsletters. Helping Hands “has made a difference in this community helping people to go about their daily lives.”

Tom Menard, director of the Laconia Senior Center, said there’s still a sizeable amount of fear among older residents, especially in recent days, because of the resurgence of COVID-19 in places like Florida and Texas. “Anxiety surges as you have places starting to reopen and numbers going up.”

Helping Hands “helps a lot of folks who can’t coordinate getting the essentials they need.  It’s not all because of COVID. There’s a hole as it is. In the old days, neighbors and churches helped out more. It’s a good idea to weave this back into the community,” said Menard, who tells his workers about Helping Hands and encourages seniors to use it.

Within hours of posting on Facebook that Blanchard needed someone to load her air conditioner into a window, Boelig said one volunteer replied that he’d do it on his way home from work.

“Three or four responded that they’d be happy to help her any time,” Boelig said. “The same with her food shopping. As terrible as this pandemic has been, it’s brought out amazing people in our community.”

“Realistically, it takes a community to come together.  If everybody does a little bit, it makes a world of difference,” said Willette.

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