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Kansas Program Matches Volunteers, People in Need : Aging: Those who need guardians or conservators are linked with those who want to help others. The 13-year-old program is unique in the country.

September 12, 1993|DANA FIELDS | ASSOCIATED PRESS

OVERLAND PARK, Kan. — When he retired from the insurance business five years ago, Frank Bradley thought he had become "sort of selfish and self-centered." It was time, he decided, to do more for others.

A few miles from Bradley's Manhattan home, an elderly nursing home resident named Connie needed help paying her bills and handling her meager income. Her only relative, a sister in California, was unable to help.

Bradley and Connie were brought together by the Kansas Guardianship Program, the only program in the country that provides volunteer guardians on a statewide basis.

Since its founding 13 years ago as part of the nonprofit Kansas Advocacy and Protective Services Inc., the program has matched hundreds of volunteers with Kansans needing guardians to look out for their well-being, conservators to manage their finances or both.

As the nation's population ages, families scatter and once-common large institutions such as mental hospitals close, guardianship officials elsewhere see the Kansas program as a prototype.

"Kansas is recognized as a model program for its success," said Anne Miller, a director of the National Guardianship Assn. and program director for Lutheran Social Services of the South Inc. in Austin, Tex.

"It's the only state with that tremendous number of volunteers operating on a statewide level, serving that number of people," she said.

"There are other programs that use volunteer guardians, but it would only be within a county or a metropolitan area," said Sally Balch Hurme, an attorney with the American Assn. of Retired Persons in Washington.

About 700 volunteers--carefully screened, court-approved and state-monitored--now serve about 1,500 fellow Kansans as guardians or conservators under the guidance of the Manhattan-based program.

Their wards or conservatees--volunteers prefer the term "person," as in "my person"--are mostly elderly. But they may be people of any age who are retarded or developmentally disabled.

All have three things in common, says program director Jean Krahn: They are indigent, they lack relatives "willing, able or appropriate" to serve as guardian or conservator and they have been identified as needing a guardian's or conservator's services.

Many states meet those needs with public administrators or guardians paid by a state or county. And, increasingly, for-profit guardianship agencies are springing up nationwide.

But Kansas relies on citizens with time, compassion and what Krahn calls "gentle strength and wisdom," traits difficult to define but which the program's staff workers, who constantly recruit volunteers county by county, know when they see.

Staff members train volunteers and match them with conservatees or wards. Once approved by a court, the volunteers are equipped with a handbook and a $20 monthly stipend and sent out to serve their charges as "a one-on-one advocate, a legal representative, and a friend," Krahn said.

As a conservator, a volunteer visits the conservatee every few weeks, paying bills and dealing with the person's various sources of income, which typically include Social Security, veterans' benefits, civil service benefits or perhaps black lung or railroad pensions.

For the guardian, advocacy at its most basic requires monitoring the ward's physical, psychological and emotional care. Should any of these be found wanting, the volunteer steps in to "make sure the system works the way it's intended," Krahn said.

In extreme cases, legal action--with advice from the state Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services--may be needed.

"But advocacy can simply be getting someone's attention, say, in a nursing home, and saying, 'Have you checked on Mary lately?' " Krahn said.

The third element--friendship--is more difficult to write in a job description but comes naturally and easily to volunteers, Krahn said.

Her files are rife with anecdotes of volunteers brightening lives with small gestures: Remembering a birthday, giving holiday gifts or visits to distant relatives, sewing or altering clothing.

Frank Bradley uses the word "friend" to describe all three of the people he has served as a guardian or conservator, starting with Connie, who died in 1991.

He has become "very good friends" with his conservatee Bobby, a 32-year-old retarded man whose face lights up when Bradley visits his group home for supper. And 98-year-old Nelle, who has no other visitors to her nursing home, is a source of joy to Bradley and his wife.

"It gives me a great deal of fulfillment," Bradley said. "I come away feeling not only with Nelle but with Bobby that I'm doing a little something to help others. And that gives me a great deal of satisfaction."

For many volunteers, Krahn said, such satisfaction takes on a religious overtone, as the volunteers feel they fulfill the mandate of a personal theology.

That category includes Norma Summers of Johnson County, who teaches elementary school. A volunteer conservator in Indiana before moving to Kansas in 1975, she learned of the Kansas program from a notice on a church bulletin board.

Her first conservatee in Kansas was a schizophrenic man who died last year. Now, she is conservator for a woman in her late 50s whom she visits in a nursing home, often bringing fruit or other small gifts.

"It's the satisfaction of helping other people," Summers said. "I think we as Christians think of how Jesus helped other people, and if we can help a few people in life, that's what it's all about."

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