Volunteers serving food at community kitchen
(Credit: Jose Luis Pelaez Inc / Getty Images)

Volunteerism is ingrained in the culture of Penney Retirement Community. Last year, residents volunteered more than 150,000 hours in the Green Cove Spring, FL, continuing care retirement community.

But the pandemic put the resident engagement model to the test.

A history of volunteering

Speaking Wednesday during a LeadingAge membership call, Penney President and CEO Teresa Scott said that residents typically volunteer in three to four areas of the community, including through clubs, the community coffee shop, as resident advocates, in the garden and on special committees.

Florida also developed a patient care assistant role, for which volunteers can be trained to assist staff members in doing more hands-on care for residents, including passing liquid foods and offering dining assistance. 

Residents also serve on the community governance board and its Association of Residents, ensuring that their voice is heard in day-to-day operations as well as planning for the future of the community. Seven of the 17 board of director members are residents.

In fact, new residents sign a contract committing to at least five years of volunteer service once they move in.

But when the fitness center, dining room and other areas of the community were shut down during COVID-19, Scott said, she worried that cutting back on volunteering would affect the community’s culture. 

She said she noticed a difference in engagement levels among new residents who entered the community from December 2019 through early 2022. But today, all of the volunteers are back and happy to be serving in their previous roles. 

“Residents are part of the delivery and receipt of care and services,” Scott said. “We’ve worked hard these last six months to begin introducing residents back into volunteer roles.”

Assess a community before jumping on board

Other communities considering adopting a resident volunteer program first should assess their community culture to gauge the willingness of residents to volunteer, as well as determine whether the governing board is receptive to the idea, she recommended. Volunteerism, Scott noted, has been part of the Penney culture for its entire 96-year existence.

“Go slow, and start talking with your resident association, and get ideas on ways they think they can help,” she said. “It’s about who you are and the culture of your community and if that’s a good fit for you.”

Resident engagement can be a community’s biggest strength, but also its biggest weakness, Scott said, adding that educating residents on different aspects of the community important to their volunteering efforts often takes considerable time.

Residents on the board’s finance committee, for example, helped roll out a strategic communication effort explaining to others why the community’s typical 3% rate increase was jumping to 9% in the spring. To be able to do that, they were educated about a legislative change at the state level that significantly increased the salaries of workers, quelling negative feedback.

“Residents realized it was going to salaries for employees, especially employees in the healthcare area, where we were seeing people exiting the fields of practice,” Scott said.

But during a strategic assessment, that same resident engagement slowed the process of building a new nursing home for two years. Residents had to delve into the process and conduct their own reviews of recommendations and costs to arrive at a consensus for communication.