Caring neighbors gaining steam in The Villages

Caring Neighbors members, from left: Mary Linda Sara, of the Village of Fenney; Pat Worcester, of the Village of Summerhill; Anne Bosler, of the Village of Hadley; John Corley, of the Village of Hadley; and Jackie Eshbach, of the Village of Buttonwood, meet Wednesday at Colony Cottage Recreation Center.

Moving the lanai furniture to a safe location in case of a hurricane isn’t yet on the roster of service provided by Caring Neighbors. But it might be soon.  

Caring Neighbors is a network within individual Villages that offers neighbors free and safe help with many items, including transportation, respite care and minor home repairs.

On the cusp of expanding to its fourth village, Caring Neighbors is gaining steam.

“The feeling you get when you can offer and give back to someone who needs help — it just gives my heart a fulfilling feeling of love for another person,” said Jackie Eshbach, director of Buttonwood Caring Neighbors.

Eschbach’s Village and three others are part of the program that got its start in the Village of Hadley.

Founder Anne Bosler had the idea to form Caring Neighbors in the fall of 2015 but discovered she couldn’t get started without registering as a nonprofit, which would take funding and legal assistance. She also wanted volunteers to have background checks.

She needed the assistance of an organization that could order and manage the background checks, provide funding and procure the nonprofit status, which allows the group to garner startup funds without Bosler getting personally taxed.

“I was at a standstill,” Bosler said.

After conducting some research, including speaking to members of other nonprofits, Bosler was referred to the CEO of United Way of Lake and Sumter Counties.

It was determined that Caring Neighbors could operate under the nonprofit status of the United Way, and they would provide funding and background checks — “an answer to my prayers,” Bosler said.

Funding for the program is for start-up costs, for the background checks, printing the brochures and other documents. Bosler estimates the startup costs for each village is about $2,000.

By the summer of 2016, Bosler was parking her golf cart at the Hadley postal station Monday-Friday for two hours each day.

“I had a big green sign that said ‘Ask me about Hadley Caring Neighbors,’” she said.

Those who inquired were given a flyer, inviting them to the first meeting, for which six showed up.

Meanwhile, recruitment continued.

“I gave talks to social clubs, breakfast clubs, in homes, at the (The Villages Homeowners Advocates) the Rotary Club and spoke to anyone who would listen,” Bosler said.

Before the year ended, Bosler had grown HCN to 20 members, with a “go live” date of May 2017.

“We were so excited when we got our first two service calls for transportation in May,” she said. “Today, we have over 50 volunteers and we provide over 1,000 hours in community service each year in the Village of Hadley alone.”

The second Caring Neighbors to form was Summerhill Caring Neighbors, with Pat Worcester as the director.

She began recruiting in October of 2017 and SCN was offering its services by February of 2018.

Unlike Hadley, there was little lag in time to develop it, in part, because the nonprofit status was established.

After slowing down to navigate operations once COVID-19 became an issue, Worcester said it is providing everything but in-home services right now, with transportation as the most-requested service.

The group has stayed strong in large part due to its service coordinator, Margaret James, who keeps everyone connected by email, Worcester said.

While she’s enjoyed her tenure as director for two and a half years, Worcester expects other volunteers will step in to take over some of the responsibilities she holds.

“Eventually, finding volunteers to take over the official leadership of our group will be a good thing for our organization,” she said.

Which is what happened in Hadley Caring Neighbors, co-directeded by John Corley and Nancy Baxter. The shift in leadership enables Bosler to center her efforts toward creating more Caring Neighbors within other villages.

Third to form was Buttwonwood Caring Neighbors, which has 18 volunteers who have been background checked, and who started distributing brochures Sept. 28.

“This should help more to see what the program can do for them,” Eshbach said.

There also are plans to incorporate social media for its communications. It already has its first neighbor-client established, who uses the service for respite care.

BCN was born in June 2020 with a meeting on Sept. 14, with 18 volunteers signed up and ready to help their neighbors, Eshbach said.

Eshbach encourages others to start a Caring Neighbors program, especially with Bosler available for guidance.

The latest Caring Neighbors program, Fenney Caring Neighbors, is about to kick off with nine volunteers who are already background checked and two in the process, said Mary Linda Sara, FCN director.

Once leadership meets to review the documents, it will start its communication campaign to make people aware it exists.

Sara knew she’d be a good fit to lead FCN because of her leadership experiences in her career.  

“It is important to me because it offers a valuable service to the community without cost,” Sara said. “It will be helpful to newcomers who are not well established with their own social networks. It will be helpful to established community members who don’t want to overburden friends for rides to the doctor, a few hours of respite care, a friendly phone call.”

Bosler recalls the moment when she noticed strong and enduring friendships were forming among the volunteers and with the clients.

HCN had its Christmas party in 2017, in which volunteers celebrated the inaugural program.

But the real celebration came when it was finally able to start helping neighbors.

“It was a privilege and a pleasure to finally be able to give service,” Bosler said.

Staff Writer Julie Butterfield can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5254, or julie.butterfield@thevillagesmedia.com.