Niceness in the Nenes: Neighbors look out for seniors in volunteer program
Tallahassee Democrat correspondent
Published 7 pm ET Democrat - August 28, 2020
First of all, for those staring at the word, the Nenes, the neighborhood also known as Indianhead and Lehigh Acres, it is pronounced just the way it looks: “Nee-Nee”s. It’s fun to say, and historic too.
Developed in the late '40s, the homes built on the former Indianhead Plantation turned up many Seminole Indian artifacts and ceremonial mounds. Ultimately, the streets within the development acquired the names of 17 “nenes” — or “trails” in the Seminole language — “Obbah Nene” (owl trail) and “Heechee Nene” (tobacco trail), among them.
Today, there are about 770 homes of relatively modest size in the neighborhood, with an educated, but aging population numbering about 1,500. This is where organizer par excellence Betsy Tabac comes in.
Tabac, who previously owned a writing and research business, knows how to get things done. As she assessed the Nene neighborhood where there lived 400 people over 65 years of age, 160 people over 75, and 60 people over 85 years old still in their homes, she knew that as time went on, many of her neighbors would be at risk for a fall, an unattended-to illness, or simply the loneliness felt by frail seniors that so often lands them in a nursing facility or worse.
“I also knew that, according to the AARP Public Policy Institute, Florida was 46th out of 51 states in terms of long-term support and services to the elderly.”
“And besides,” says Tabac, “I love this neighborhood. My family lives out of state and I personally want to continue to live on my own, in my own home for as long as possible.”
That is when Tabac tapped into an idea that has been around since the 1990s, a Neighbor to Neighbor organization that would arrange for teams, services and help of all kinds that could be shared among people next door and down the block in an effort to keep older individuals from needing to go elsewhere to live safely.
Tabac said it took nearly a year to set up the Nenes Neighbor to Neighbor program — obtaining its 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, organizing insurance, conferring with lawyers and setting up the ability to do background checks on the volunteers she would enlist — but in 2018, the program began.
“It was slow at first because I think people didn’t really understand what we were offering,” she says. But three years later, there are 32 people who actively volunteer their assistance to the elderly for a host of both large and small needs.
Janice Hartwell is a volunteer. A retired art professor at FSU, Hartwell says she makes more than two dozen telephone calls each month to older residents, some who over time have become friends. “I just check in with them, seeing if they need anything; let them hear a friendly voice.”
And there are many other services that the Neighbor to Neighbor initiative has committed to provide.
Tabac says that volunteers can pick up and deliver medicine; do grocery shopping with or for the elder; do yard work; do home maintenance or repairs; help the senior prepare for emergency weather events; and prepare meals for the recipient as needed.
“We have a referral service to helping agencies, and we’ve also added a new educational series, with lessons on safe driving, home security and how to modify a home for the elderly."
And not all the volunteers are of a “certain age.” Charity Myers, a graphic artist, and her 9-year-old daughter Sahni are also eager participants.
“I was involved in the creation of graphics for our neighborhood newsletter and for NeneFest, as well as creating T-shirts and posters for the neighborhood," said Charity. "But the Neighbor to Neighbor program was brought home to me when my elderly mother-in-law in another state really wanted to stay in her own home. Betsy Tabac helped me navigate that decision successfully. My own grandparents, unfortunately, were unable to… and that has made a huge difference.
Today, even as she helps her parents make meals for an elderly person nearby, young Sahni Myers creates small note cards to tuck in beside the food, and brings her own kind of cheer.
Tabac thinks about some of the elders or frail seniors the organized volunteers serve, and her voice grows soft.
“We often take people to their doctor’s appointments; sometimes we’ve taken them to a concert. Usually, the volunteers work on a team of three to share the responsibility — but the calls of thank you from the recipients are always touching and the rewards to those who offer their services are enormous.”
Hartwell adds, “People often buy houses here in the Nenes… and stay.”
And with the outreach of one friendly hand to another enabling them to do so, there is ready evidence as to why they do.
Marina Brown can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.