Located in Western Massachusetts, Franklin Medical Reserve Corps (MRC) is a unit with about 325 volunteers. Since March of 2020, the MRC has on-boarded and trained over 250 volunteers and responded to COVID-19 through support of vaccination clinics, medical care sites for COVID-19 positive homeless individuals, hospitals, and food distribution. They continue to staff clinics and conduct weekly pooled testing at several county schools. In the community the Franklin MRC serves, approximately 25% of the population is over the age of 65—a group that saw new levels of isolation and loneliness because of the COVID-19 pandemic. To improve quality of life and health outcomes during this challenging time, the unit developed its Senior Citizen Resilience Mission Set.
“Isolation and loneliness really impact mental and physical health,” said Berkshire MRC/Franklin MRC Director Corinne McKeown. “This mission is popular because it’s meaningful.”
The mission was initially modeled on the Berkshire MRC “We Read Stories” program which paired seniors with MRC volunteers who would read a story weekly to their partner. While eight Franklin MRC volunteers still read a story (ranging from poetry, to short stories, to other works that match a senior’s interest), the unit expanded the program to include other ways to engage community members.
Volunteers with a theatrical background have compiled a list of free online resources like museum tours, concerts, and shows. Community members who want to engage in this program element can view an event online and then discuss it via zoom or phone with their partner MRC volunteer.
Volunteers who are professional singers collect song requests from community members using a Google form and then record a video of a song along with a personal greeting – which is then forwarded to the requester.
The Franklin MRC has also partnered with the Greenfield Community College OASIS program (Older Adults Seeking, Inspiring, and Serving) to record COVID stories of resilience, challenge, or personal lessons learned. As part of the project, 22 MRC volunteers received special training in storytelling.
While each of these activities was developed to address COVID, the pandemic created its own challenges around implantation. For example, MRC volunteers were trained to use recording equipment in the community college’s new podcast studio, however, health concerns have transitioned those recordings to Zoom. Early-on, the pandemic also made identifying those that could benefit from the program more challenging, as those local senior-serving organizations that the MRC would typically partner with were busy themselves dealing with COVID.
“We’re not giving up,” said McKeown. “Arts and creative engagement really have a positive health impact.”
In addition to serving the community, this program has attracted new volunteers to the Franklin MRC and served as a new avenue to get the word out about its mission. It has also allowed volunteers to take on leadership positions, including the coordination of volunteers within the storytelling project.
For those units wishing to implement similar programming, Franklin MRC lists a number of resources as part of its mission set. One new resource that McKeown recommends is The Creative Center in New York City. The nonprofit offers a month-long training on how to be an art and health practitioner, bringing art to people who need it with specific art activities that are population appropriate.