The Volunteer Correspondent Program (VCP), based out of Augusta, is doing everything in their power to help better the lives of the intellectually disabled and the autistic.
“Our mission is to provide a network of trained volunteers to provide friendship and advocacy for individuals with an intellectual disability or autism who have no one else in their lives to care for them,” Pamela Cairnie, Volunteer Coordinator of the program, said. Cairnie has been working with the program for the past six years. VCP is also a statewide program and Cairnie is the only staff in charge of finding the right volunteers.
“I manage a lot of people. I’m always on my cellphone,” Cairnie said.
The program is broken up between volunteers, known as correspondents, who befriend and take care of an intellectually disabled person, known as consumers. The VCP do vigorous background checks on correspondents before marking them eligible to work with a consumer.
“It’s like a job application. A correspondent will fill it out and send it to me. All of the information is checked and rechecked for personal references, work references, past volunteer work,” Cairnie said.
They also look on social media for anything that could be a red flag. They do a criminal history check, an adult protective services check to look for instances of past abuse, neglect or exploitation. They check motor vehicle records to look for any past instances of reckless behavior.
“A lot of our correspondents will be transporting the person they are caring for. We also check the sexual offender registry. These consumers are very vulnerable and we want to make sure we do diligence,” Cairnie said.
Once the paperwork is finished, the next step is matching up a correspondent with a consumer.
“We have over 100 consumers on a waitlist. These are individuals with an intellectual disability who no one has yet applied for to help,” Cairnie said.
When matching up the two groups, Cairnie looks for similar interests and whether the correspondent truly cares or not.
“Some of these people are nonverbal. We try to recognize if they are uncomfortable with being matched with a particular gender,” Cairnie said.
Every year by law, consumers have at least one meeting. A review of whether or not this intellectually disabled person has unpaid support outside of a paid staff.
“Some of them don’t have family because they are older and their parents are already deceased. Perhaps their siblings have moved away. There are a lot of reasons as to why an intellectually disabled person may need a correspondent,” Cairnie said.
According to Cairnie, a department called Disability Rights Maine provides legal advocacy and open cases they think are worth looking into. However, sometimes there are smaller issues that Disability Rights Maine will not address but VCP could help.
“There was one guy a year ago who went to a Dollar Tree store and bought a pair of glasses. He then went home to his group home that were full of staff members who cared for him. The staff at his home thought that he couldn’t have the glasses because they thought that he had no prescription for them. He became frustrated by this. Without a correspondent, he wouldn’t have been able to help himself. The correspondent took care of it,” Cairnie said.
There are several other examples that showcase the importance of the VCP and the benefits of having a correspondent.
“There was one young intellectually disabled woman who was abused in her home. Her correspondent found out about it and had her removed to a safe place,” Cairnie said.
Cairnie recalls one instance where a correspondent helped an intellectually disabled person who was a diabetic.
“Her home staff were not following her prescribed diet. What she was being fed was literally killing her. The correspondent found out and was able to report it and have her removed from that situation,” Cairnie said.
According to Cairnie, some correspondents in the program have been volunteering for the past 30 years. A lot of paid staff don’t stick around that long.
Having a correspondent is also great for a consumer just for the fact that they can be active.
“Most of these people don’t drive or get out of the house much. They are surrounded by a small circle of people, like paid staff. By having a correspondent, they can go to a hockey game or the mall or someone’s house for a holiday,” Cairnie said.
Cairnie has high hopes for the future of the program and has ideas about expansion.
“I would love to have satellite offices in Augusta, one in Northern Maine and one in the south, that way the program would be able to spread all over and help the mentally disabled from all areas of Maine,” Cairnie said.
Another thing Cairnie strives for is to be able to get more volunteers to work with the consumers.
“My ultimate goal is to no longer have a waiting list for the consumers who need help. It would be really nice to see a waiting list of volunteers who are eager to help,” Cairnie said.
The VCP is currently doing a great job of providing the intellectually disabled with someone who can care for them and provide them with friendship. The connections this program are building can really have an impact on an intellectually disabled individual.
“Never underestimate the importance of having a friend. Having someone around is the best medicine there is,” Cairnie said.