Three years ago, 77-year-old Alberta Langel received a copy of the Senior News in the mail. The newspaper is produced by the Adult Resource Alliance of Yellowstone County. Alberta was in a serious state of depression, having lost her husband two years earlier. “I sat and brooded and felt sorry for myself. I wanted to die too,” she admits. But, something about the Senior News caught her eye. Alberta says, “There was a full section on volunteers and I thought maybe I could do something with the alliance. The next day, I showered and got dressed, trying to feel human, and drove to the alliance’s office to see what it was all about.”
That decision was the first of many that turned Alberta’s depression around, allowing her to bring joy, gratitude and a lot of hugs to those with the Adult Resource Alliance (ARA). For the past three years, she has faithfully dished up meals for Meals on Wheels, an ARA program that provides meals to seniors who are homebound. One day a week, she volunteers in the 1505 Ave. D dining room of the alliance, where every weekday hot meals are served to seniors who wish to come for lunch. “I got confidence that I did have talents that I didn’t even recognize in myself,” Alberta says today with a smile. “The appreciation is amazing and I love the hugs. I didn’t realize how much I missed those. I discovered I am worth being there and being alive.”
Through the Alliance Volunteer Program, Alberta volunteers year-round at the Billings Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center, another job that she dearly loves. “They leave me notes to say that I’m a rock star. It does great things for my ego,” Alberta says. “After my husband died, I felt 90. Now I feel 60!”
Alberta is a part of an army of more than 600 volunteers and 45 employees that make up the Adult Resource Alliance of Yellowstone County. She is also a part of the mission. Executive Director Bea Ann Melichar explains, “We help seniors remain independent with the highest quality of life. We are supporting people who are 60 to 100 years of age. That is a 40-year span! Our programs are geared to help people of all ages and stages of their lives.”
Hundreds of the more active seniors are volunteers in the wide variety of programs the alliance has to offer. Last year, volunteers made 64,619 lunches in the ARA’s large commercial kitchen, serving 1,961 adults all across Billings and in many of the adjacent communities. The daily lunch program offers hot meals to seniors every weekday, bringing not only food but also opportunities for seniors to connect and enjoy each other’s company. “Once people quit working their social group changes or disappears,” says Melichar. The lunch program is just one way the alliance seeks to bridge that gap.
Last year, volunteers like Alberta packaged and delivered 56,859 hot meals to 503 homebound seniors. Judy Hughes, development director for the ARA, says, “Our drivers and volunteers for Meals on Wheels love the relationships they develop when they deliver meals.” Alliance volunteers help label and mail the Senior News to 10,000 households every month as well as staff other programs.
On any given day, knitters and quilters may gather at the center, pinochle and bridge battles might be waged, or tai chi is often practiced. As individuals enter another stage of life becoming homebound, they are able to take advantage of programs like Meals on Wheels, Pantry Pals — where shopping and errands are run for them — or programs that offer minor home repair and light bookkeeping.
Melichar has led the alliance for the past 30 years. She grew up in a three-generation household. “It was always a part of my life to be around older people,” she says. After graduating from Montana State University, Melichar was deciding where she could be most effective with her psychology degree. “There were so many positives to working with older people,” she says. “I just knew how much they had to give. Their knowledge and life experience are amazing.” Fortunately for Yellowstone County, Bea Ann has dedicated 37 years of her professional life to the Adult Resource Alliance, nurturing the multi-faceted organization into what it is today.
A single glance at the Senior News and one can hardly absorb all of the alliance’s offerings. In addition to the food programs, there are free healthcare opportunities. Seniors can have foot care, blood pressure checks and memory care evaluations. The alliance offers transportation to non-driving seniors to hair appointments, medical appointments and shopping. The Senior News warns vulnerable seniors of phone and internet scams. It also tells of durable medical equipment available on loan. For those who like to get out and explore a bit, there are even group travel excursions to experience.
Another amazing arm of the ARA is The Resource Center. Employees there educate people on the confusing intricacies of Medicare and its related insurance options. Local artist and retired teacher Carolyn Thayer calls the center an “untapped resource.” She adds, “I was so grateful for what they did for me. I was a mess trying to figure out my insurance. I’m an artist and my brain does not handle insurance details very well. I am a diabetic and was paying $300 a month for insulin that Medicare doesn’t pay for. The Resource Center cut through all the confusion and helped me find a plan that would cover my medical needs. I was thrilled that somebody wasn’t bamboozled by all the information and could help me.” Last year, the center helped seniors in Yellowstone County save more than a combined $1 million, just by evaluating prescription plans. When it comes to taxes, the first part of the year ARA hosts the AARP’s tax program. Nine tax preparers and dozens of volunteers offer free tax prep to any senior who needs it.
Former ARA board member Diane Boyett worked at First Interstate Bank for 42 years. When she retired, she wanted to do something that made her life fulfilling and productive. She chose to volunteer at the alliance. She now works about 10 hours a week writing the policies and procedures for the nonprofit. She loves being a part of something that is serving our community in such critical ways. “The alliance puts their whole heart into what they do,” says Diane.
For Alberta Langel, her love for the ARA is a little more personal. Recently, she fell and broke her hip. She is temporarily homebound, so Meals on Wheels now comes to her house every day, ensuring she has a hot meal to aid in her recovery. She is walking and doing her rehabilitation with the hopes of returning to her volunteer posts as soon as possible. In the meantime, all those hours she has invested in others have come full circle to support her.
“They are always thanking me for my help but they have no idea what they have done for me,” Alberta says. “They saved my life.” For Alberta, along with the hundreds of aging seniors in Yellowstone County, the ARA, with its many resources and programs, is truly a lifeline to independence, relationships and security.
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