Betsy Kerr is making the most of her retirement, focusing her newfound free time on charitable efforts throughout Napa Valley.
“I’m not one to stay still for long,” said the American Canyon resident. “I want to be out doing something of use for other people. I’ve always had a desire to help.”
Since moving to Napa County three years ago after living in Silicon Valley for more than 30 years, where she worked as a manager for Hewlett-Packard, Kerr has found her niche as a Friendly Visitor with the Share the Care program, which assists senior citizens in need. Via the Friendly Visitor program, volunteers dedicate themselves to visiting with an isolated senior for a few hours each week.
Kerr currently has six seniors she visits with regularly.
“I never thought I’d be volunteering with the elderly even if I am a senior myself,” Kerr said. “I’ve been involved with Kiwanis International for decades, and its efforts focus on helping children. Frankly, I thought volunteering with isolated and lonely seniors might be a bit depressing. I didn’t know how I could be of help.”
Despite her reservations, Kerr attended a Share the Care meeting two years ago and decided to volunteer as a Friendly Visitor, much to the delight of program director Yvonne Baginski.
“Betsy was a surprise,” Baginski said. “She just showed up one day out of the blue. I didn’t expect her to be so dedicated to the Friendly Visitors program, but she has made life better for people who are homebound and socially isolated. She builds relationships with people over time and becomes a personal friend.”
Baginski was under the impression that Kerr was committing to the standard Friendly Visitors protocol, but when Kerr submitted her reports after meeting with each person, Baginski began to realize that Kerr is more than just a visitor.
“I thought she was meeting up with these people and spending an hour or two sitting and talking, maybe helping them run errands,” Baginski said, “but she’s taking them out to the movies or out to lunch. She goes out with women and they get manicures and pedicures and then go out to lunch. Betsy is going out and having fun with these seniors who may not get out of their homes otherwise. She is absolutely amazing.”
Kerr said she’d never been out for a mani-pedi before until her new friend Donna asked to go, but now it’s part of their routine. Donna gets the full workup, but Kerr prefers to just get her nails cleaned up and painted.
“A lot of seniors just want company,” Kerr said. “At first volunteering with Friendly Visitors seemed a bit awkward. It seems a bit weird to just walk into someone’s home and spend a few hours with them. I was so nervous the first time I went for a visit, but when the senior opens the door and you see how happy they are to see you, that trepidation goes away.”
Kerr always meets with seniors in their homes for the first visit. They swap introductions and stories, and Kerr asks in what ways she can be of service, such as helping a person run errands or attend medical appointments. During their initial chats, Kerr figures out how she can best help each person.
Baginski said Kerr probably knows Napa County resources – especially resources in American Canyon – better than people who have lived here their whole lives. Baginski said Kerr’s determination to find out how to best help each senior makes her a valuable member of the community, even if Kerr prefers to fly under the radar.
When an American Canyon woman approached Share the Care about getting rides to Fairfield for chemotherapy treatments, it was Kerr who volunteered to take the woman to her appointments twice a week for a period of eight weeks. Afterward, the two would grab a snack and chat.
Kerr said helping the woman get to Fairfield for treatments was no trouble, but Baginski said Kerr’s dedication to literally go the extra mile is a reflection of Kerr’s kind spirit.
In her free time, Kerr enjoys singing (she performs with the Bay Area Showcase Chorus in San Jose), so when one of her friends asked to learn Christmas songs and go caroling throughout a senior living apartment complex in Napa, Kerr designed a program of 10 songs and the two rehearsed for a few weeks before caroling in the apartment’s common room. Kerr printed out lyric sheets so others could join in.
Kerr said a handful of people gathered for the singing while others sat to enjoy the music. She said participants reminisced about memories of their childhood Christmases in between songs. She hopes to continue the caroling next holiday season since everyone seemed to have such a good time.
In addition to her work as a Friendly Visitor, Kerr also remains active in Kiwanis and is a member of the American Canyon chapter. Kiwanis member Brian Farmer said Kerr and her husband, Mike, are a welcome addition to American Canyon Kiwanis. The couple help out at the American Canyon Food Pantry and participated in the chili cook-off fundraiser this summer.
Kerr acknowledges that she takes on a lot and that she’s probably due for a vacation, but she loves what she’s doing through the Friendly Visitors program.
“You start off as strangers, but over time, you establish relationships and they become a part of your life,” Kerr said. “You look forward to meeting up with them. You want to hear about their week. These isolated seniors often feel lonely and forgotten. They simply want companionship. They want to know someone cares. I’m thankful I can be that person for these seniors. You give a lot as a Friendly Visitor but you get so much in return.”