Wellness on Wheels van brings anti-loneliness campaign to Salem seniors

Terry Sherman grew up in Louisiana, where he watched his mom volunteer to help people who were homeless. By the time he became a student at Willamette University, her work had inspired him to find ways to help his new community. He’s been busy.

On Wednesday, June 14, Sherman was the youngest volunteer to arrive at the Highland Village Garden, 2100 Hazel Ave. N.E., with Salem’s Center 50+ Wellness on Wheels Van, called the WOW Van. 

The community garden is in a neighborhood with apartments and townhomes that have older residents. The Center 50+ headquarters is a 10 minute walk away.

That day, WOW Van volunteers and its partners at Catholic Community Services brought a variety of new plants, including tomatoes, bell peppers, jalapeños, winter squash and flowers. The group reserved two beds in the garden.

Totaling around ten volunteers, most got to work planting and deciding where to put the dozens of plants provided by Marion Polk Food Share. A few sat at tables and chairs put out on the sidewalk to chat with passerby about summer programming at Center 50+.

Within a few minutes, the empty garden turned to a hub of friendly conversation and tips about how to help plants thrive.

Sherman, a rising junior studying biology and religion, is working as an intern for the senior program. He said he feels that people aren’t as social as they used to be pre-pandemic, and the work helps older people who might be feeling lonely.

“Since I know about this, why not come help?,” he said, taking a break from planting new sprouts in a raised bed.

Wellness on Wheels volunteers Zarai Pelcastre, left, and Melinda Yost at the Highland Village Garden tend to boxes and plant new flowers and vegetables for the community space (Abbey McDonald)

The event that day had a dual purpose of livening the community space and sharing information about the services the WOW Van provides, from fitness classes to friendly visits.

The major problem the program hopes to address is senior isolation, said organizer Heidi Miller,

“Aging well is also about aging and community. That means it’s about relationships,” she said.

She said the van has around 25 visits scheduled this summer throughout Salem, through the end of September. The group has flyers it hands out at community events, and an online page where it updates the van’s location and future plans. 

This summer, she said the van will do more trips to community gardens, and visit affordable living communities like apartments and RV parks.

Later this summer, they’re planning another more high-octane vegetable themed event. Volunteers at the Center 50+ woodshop are building a slot car track for zucchini races, with some of the veggies provided by Salem Harvest. They’ll take to the races at the Salem Saturday Market on August 19. 

“We’ll put wheels and axles on those babies, and get folks able to decorate them,” she said.

The van is also available for pop up events, she said. Neighbors can call in for resources, and the van will come to their door. For requests, call 503-588-6303.

Those services include fitness coaching, and company for people living with memory loss. The team also does welfare check-ins, birthday greetings and visits with dogs.

Volunteers also help people with technology. There’s a tablet and laptop loaner program, with built in Internet access included, and help getting started.

The Wellness on Wheels Van, parked at the Highland Village Garden in Northeast Salem (Abbey McDonald)

Miller said the goal is to make sure seniors don’t feel alone. Through events, activities and resources, each person’s social support network grows.

Loneliness and social isolation can be as harmful to a senior’s longevity as smoking, obesity and a lack of physical activity, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Feeling alone can increase health risks and risk of dementia.

“We do a lot of programming that addresses the issues of senior isolation and loneliness, so we’ll take the WOW Van out to check in on someone, give them good things to think about, do and feel,” she said.

Salem joined the AARP Age-Friendly community network in 2017, after demonstrating investment in engagement programs for older adults.

The WOW Van and Center 50+ are seeking new volunteers for programs including friendly visits, help with home repairs and to give breaks to caretakers. There’s an online application process, followed by orientation and training. One-time volunteers are welcome.

Miller, who has been working with older adults for over 20 years, said she’s learned a lot from them.

“The reality is that there’s a lot fun. A lot of knowledge. A lot of will to be engaged and connected, and a lot of people carrying the big secret about healthy aging in their back pocket: that it’s all about community,” she said.

The garden volunteers, ranging from Sherman’s college-age through seniors, gathered around a garden box holding plants and tools.

A longtime senior volunteer described how a wall of shallots on the side of the box would help keep the bugs out. Marigolds, too, another older volunteer added. 

The Highland Village garden is the home neighborhood for Center 50+ the group has made a commitment to support the garden, Miller said.

As they worked in the garden, a few more neighbors trickled in to tend to their boxes and chat. 
After an hours’ work, the volunteers left the garden greener than it was before.

Wellness on Wheels volunteers, at the Highland Village Garden pose behind new plantings added to brighten the community space. From left, Zarai Pelcastre, Henry Bodkin, Melinda Yost, Donna Bodkin, Jean Madden, Heidi Miller and Terry Sherman (Abbey McDonald)

Correction: A previous version of this story said that the zucchini race was scheduled for August 1, and that Sherman interned for Catholic Community Services. Salem Reporter apologizes for the error.

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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.