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Making A Difference in Your Community : Volunteer Can Help Widowed Spouses Grieve

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The victories in overcoming the death of a spouse are small: the first time a wife is able to dispose of some of her husband’s clothes, when a husband is able to listen to a tape of his wife’s voice.

“Each little victory for them becomes a victory of mine,” said Doris Fitchett, a senior peer counselor for the Family Service Agency in Burbank since it started in January of 1993. She was named the agency’s outstanding volunteer of the year last week.

Fitchett got involved in the program after seeing a newspaper ad for volunteers over the age of 60. With about 20 years as a physical rehabilitation therapist and two years as an alcoholism counselor, she knew that she was good with people, a good listener. The program was aimed at helping seniors by having fellow seniors help counsel them.

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“We feel it’s easier for a senior to speak to a senior,” Fitchett said.

She feels she has a lot in common with the seniors she helps to cope with a loved one’s death. A few years ago, she lost both her mother and a son within six months of each other,

“I know how that can just numb you,” Fitchett said.

As a group counselor, she meets at the agency with about seven senior citizens--ranging in age from 65 to 85--Monday mornings for about an hour and a half. The sessions begin with Fitchett asking each person to talk about the previous week.

“What happened when you saw your son?” she asks. “Did you visit the grave this week?”

Sometimes the sessions are temporarily sidetracked in shared nostalgia, such as remembering what Burbank was like years ago. Often, that leads to memories of something the participants did with a spouse.

“To lose a spouse at any time is devastating, but seniors have lost so much already,” Fitchett said.

For example, she said, seniors may have lost their health, friends or other parts of their lives. Even their children may not understand why their parent is still grieving months after the death of a spouse.

“We offer a safe place for them to share their story,” Fitchett said. “They bond together. I just sit back and let them go.”

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Fitchett also does one-on-one counseling. Although she is not a licensed therapist, her progress is regularly checked by one.

The Family Service Agency in Burbank also has other programs to help seniors, including home care volunteers, who can be of any age. To volunteer call Nell Elerding, senior connections coordinator at the agency, (818) 845-7671.

Valley Presbyterian Hospital’s Volunteer Services Department needs volunteers to work as receptionists in the intensive care unit, assist the staff with general duties, answer phones, and greet new patients and their families. Openings are for Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 1 to 5 p.m. Those interested should call Anne Fastiggi, the hospital’s volunteer director, at (818) 902-2932.

St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank is looking for volunteers--especially those who are bilingual--to work with recuperating or terminally ill patients as part of the hospital’s Home Health and Hospice Department. Patients in the program are from throughout the Los Angeles area. Volunteers are required to give four hours a week after the initial 30 hours of training. To apply, call (818) 843-5111 ext. 7051.

The Fred Jordan Mission’s sixth annual “Back-to-School Days” event in Downtown Los Angeles is expected to feed and clothe more than 7,000 homeless or needy children Aug. 16 and 17. Volunteers are needed to help distribute the clothes, as well as to sort clothes beforehand. The sorting is ongoing. Each child will be given a complete new outfit, a new pair of shoes and some food. To volunteer call the mission at (818) 915-1981.

Getting Involved is a weekly listing of volunteering opportunities. Please address prospective listings to Getting Involved, Los Angeles Times, 20000 Prairie St., Chatsworth, 91311. Or fax them to (818) 772-3338.

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