We are proud to announce our Senior Companions Program (SCP) volunteer Julia Penson has been selected as a WellCare Champion. The WellCare Champion competition, presented by WellCare Health Plans, recognizes the exceptional service of residents in Southeast Texas on behalf of older adults.
The WellCare Grand Champion will be chosen through a public voting process August 5-September 13, and his or her selected nonprofit organization will be awarded $25,000 as a charitable grant. You can vote once per day from each of your devices.
Penson exemplifies the qualities of a WellCare Grand Champion. A smile on her face, she often rolls up at five in the morning to help her first client as an SCP volunteer.
In good weather, she walks two miles a day with her client, an early riser. When Penson learned the woman’s neighbor was over 100 years old, she knocked on the door and introduced herself. From then on, Penson and her client often cooked a hearty breakfast for the neighbor—eggs over medium, grits and pancakes—and the women would sit and socialize for hours. One day when Penson’s client had a stroke, she was there to call 911 and made sure she safely, and quickly, got to the hospital.
“I cannot tell you how wonderful it was to be a part of their lives,” said Penson, a Houston native who’s been an SCP volunteer for the last three years. “It was so rich. As a volunteer, I try to bring out the best in every person. No matter what the situation is, I ask myself, what can I do to make this better?”
Penson is one of dozens of SCP volunteers—older adults themselves—who provide companionship and support to isolated seniors in the Houston area. For the past 26 years, the national service program sponsored by the J has helped address the pressing problems of social isolation among aging adults and the stress and fatigue their family members and caregivers often suffer. Low-income adults age 55 and older are trained then matched with senior clients who they help live with dignity and independence.
“Julia has a heart the size of Texas and is always willing to go above and beyond the call of duty in order to help her senior clients feel valued and supported,” said Walt McFadden, director of Senior Community Services at the J. “She doesn’t just provide companionship, she provides friendship, and that is the greatest gift a person can give to a senior suffering from isolation and loneliness.”
According to AARP, nearly 90 percent of people over age 65 want to live at home for as long as they can. Programs like SCP make that possible, and they can translate into major healthcare savings for seniors, their families, the community and taxpayers.
What’s more, research has shown that feelings of loneliness and social isolation can speed up cognitive decline. By spending time with Houston’s homebound, disabled or hospitalized seniors—and helping them with errands and simple tasks at home—SCP volunteers like Penson are positively affecting seniors’ health and well-being.
Penson has a long history of caring for her elders. When she was 16 years old, her great aunt Julia fell ill. Penson’s grandmother, who worked in home healthcare, showed Penson how to care for her great aunt. In school, Penson studied to be a patient care assistant. When her first client choked on a hot dog, Penson jumped in with the Heimlich maneuver.
“When the paramedics came, they said ‘’you did good,’” Penson said.
Penson also cared part-time for her grandmother the last six years of her life after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. At the time, Penson was also busy raising a teenage daughter. She’d listen for hours as her grandmother—a talented hat maker—relived stories of making Queen Elizabeth and Great Gatsby style hats to sell to women at her church. “She was this awesome person,” Penson said.
As an SCP volunteer, Penson has taken clients to Opera to Go! at the J and exercised alongside them at the J’s fitness center. She recalls one client who was so excited for companionship that she would dart out of her house as soon as Penson pulled her up in her car. Recently, Penson was crowned Queen of Senior Companions at a holiday recognition lunch at the J, where she sat on a decorated throne.
“She always puts the client first, and she takes such good care of them,” said Director of SCP Sandra Smolensky. Often, Penson works after hours taking a client to the theater or driving them to meet a friend for a dinner date. “She goes above and beyond,” Smolensky said, “she goes that extra mile.”
To learn more about the WellCare Champion competition and vote for Penson as Grand Champion, visit www.wellcarechampionstexas.com.
From August 2 through September 13 participants can vote each day from different devices. If Penson receives the most votes, she will choose the Evelyn Rubenstein JCC’s Senior Companions Program to be awarded $25,000.