‘It’s really rewarding:’ Johnson, Shelby county VASIA needs volunteers

Local adults unable to care for themselves or make decisions on their own face a precarious situation.

County residents afflicted with conditions such as dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and mental illnesses are at high risk for exploitation, without a trustworthy guardian to ensure they receive the care and support they need.

To protect the community’s most vulnerable people is the mission of Volunteer Advocates for Seniors and Incapacitated Adults, or VASIA.

“To know that their wishes are going to be expressed in a way they want them to is a wonderful feeling — to know we fulfilled their life in a way they wanted to when no one else was around,” said Lauren Rynerson, executive director for Johnson and Shelby County VASIA.

Those guardians are high demand. Johnson and Shelby County VASIA is in need of volunteers to help protect the most vulnerable residents. The public guardianship program provides assistance for those in need of advocacy, helping them make decisions in order to be as independent as possible while still maintaining their health, comfort and safety.

Appointed by the local courts, VASIA advocates are paired with clients deemed unable to care for themselves, spending considerable time with them helping make decisions on everything from finances to medical needs to what they want to happen when they die.

Currently, 12 volunteers are signed up with VASIA. As the organization is serving about 40 clients in the two counties, officials hope to bring in an additional 20 people, Rynerson said.

“Our program depends on volunteers. Not enough volunteers means not accepting additional people in need. Like every other volunteer-based program and business, we are struggling to find people to fill an essential role,” Rynerson said. “We need additional eyes and ears on our most vulnerable citizens. They deserve to be honored, develop healthy friendships and receive care in a dignified manner.”

The VASIA program was created in 2016 at the behest of Superior Court 1 Judge Kevin Barton. The state Supreme Court requested grant money from the legislature to create a program, and that request was granted.

Oversight of the VASIA program is done locally by the courts, and the guardianship process entails much thorough research and evidence that this in needed. The adults in need of advocacy are referred to the court and to Rynerson, usually by nursing homes or other care institutions.

The people in need of a guardian may include, people with dementia, Alzheimer’s, mental illness, substance abuse issues, traumatic brain injury, developmental disabilities, autism, and any other incapacity that limits their ability to make decisions about their financial and medical care.

A majority of their clients are elderly, but the program is open to anyone older than 18.

“The people we serve will be without a willing, able or suitable relative or significant person to serve as guardian,” said the Rev. Peter Jessen, board chair for Johnson and Shelby County VASIA. “A county judge must rule that the person needs guardianship and will then assign VASIA to the case.”

VASIA leadership and paid staff are the main overseers of their clients — investigating referrals, presenting cases before the judge for guardianship ruling, applying for benefits and coordinating services with other agencies. But a key component of the system is volunteers, who meet with the clients on a regular basis to determine their needs.

“We don’t need them to make the financial or medical decisions — we handle those in-office. We just need them to focus on the interaction between the client and the volunteer to have that relationship,” Rynerson said.

Joe Erickson, who was the VASIA director prior to Rynerson, has maintained his involvement in the organization through volunteering.

To him, it was important to give assistance to those who needed help.

“There is a segment of our population who get lost in the cracks. Those are the individuals who are seniors with dementia or some other kind of illness, or just an adult who is incapacitated due to disability,” he said. “They get placed in nursing homes and residential facilities, and people think that once they’re in there, everything goes 100%. That doesn’t necessarily occur.”

Sitting with the clients he volunteers with is incredibly rewarding, getting to know about their lives and who they are as people.

”We try to search out who that person was before their incapacity, so we get an idea of how they would want to decide on different things,” Erickson said.

Applications to volunteer can be found on VASIA’s website. Volunteers should be over the age of 21, and expect to put in an average of eight to 10 hours each month in meeting with clients, though people can set their own hours.

Activities include monthly visits, personal shopping, recreational activities, service monitoring, and advocacy.

“Most of our clients have had some type of neglect or exploitation have to them. They don’t trust a lot of people. There is definitely a lot of trauma. you have to work for a while to have them fully open up to you and trust you,” Rynerson said.

While volunteers top the list of needs VASIA is facing, Rynerson is also working to secure supplemental funding to support the program. Johnson County funds the director’s salary and benefits along with providing office space in the courthouse, while a state VASIA grant of $75,000 covers the assistant director’s salary and benefits, as well as operating expenses. In addition, the organization receives $10,000 from Shelby County.

A huge cost for VASIA is attorney fees, Rynerson said.

“That is our main fee besides the salary of our assistant director. We do get a reduced rate because our attorney knows what our program is and we are limited on funding,” she said. “Different cases can have several court hearings that take several hours. There’s preparation time, there’s attorney time after court hearings.”

Donations to VASIA can be made at the Johnson County Community Foundation or the Blue River Community Foundation.

Those funds do end up making a big difference, Rynerson said.

“It’s really rewarding. You are making very big decisions in someone’s life, and that’s why it’s imperative to have those relationships and try to figure out what they’d want you to do in that situation, and try to fulfill that as best as you can, as long as its safe and healthy for that person,” she said.

How to help

Johnson County Volunteer Advocates for Seniors and Incapacitated Adults is in need of volunteers to be public guardians for its program.

Anyone 21 and older can volunteer.

A volunteer should expect to put in an average of 8 to 10 hours monthly. The time commitment will vary depending on the need of the protected person and their issues.

What do they do:

  • Identify and advocate for the person’s needs and preferences
  • Promote and monitor the well-being of the person
  • Maximize independence in the least restrictive setting
  • Communicate with family members and health care providers
  • Consent to and monitor medical treatment
  • Consent to and monitor non-medical services, such as education and counseling
  • Inventory assets and personal belongings
  • Sell homes, land, vehicles, coin collections, stocks and bonds
  • Submit an annual report to the court
  • Prearrange funeral services
  • Make end-of-life decisions
  • VASIA staff on call 24/7

Learning luncheons: If you are interested in becoming a volunteer, please join VASIA for lunch at Greeks Pizzeria, 18 E. Jefferson St., Franklin from 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m. on Sept. 7 or Oct. 5.

Anyone interested can contact Johnson County VASIA executive director Lauren Rynerson at [email protected] or 317-346-4414.