By Donita Naylor
Providence Journal Staff Writer
CRANSTON — The woman whose thoughts on paper practically jumped up and got busy giving older Rhode Islanders a way to engage socially while keeping their social distance, had no trouble thinking of a name for the program or selling it to the director of the state Office of Healthy Aging.
Maureen Maigret, former director of the same office, although then it was known as the Department of Elderly Affairs, proposed calling the new program “Project HELLO,” which spells out its mission: Helping Elders Limit Loneliness Outreach.
Rosamaria Amoros Jones, current director of the agency, said Maigret told her the name wasn’t inspired by the line that Renee Zellweger says to Tom Cruise in “Jerry Maguire,” right after his “You complete me” speech.
“I literally said … when she presented this, ‘You had me at hello,’” Jones said.
Maigret said no, she was inspired by the John Prine song “Hello in There,” which begins with a lovely lush guitar melody and some pretty words. But the refrain steps on a broken board and tumbles into pain:
“Ya know that old trees just grow stronger
And old rivers grow wilder every day,
But old people just grow lonesome
Waiting for someone to say, “Hello in there, hello.”
Prine — who survived two cancers and reclaimed his career both times — died on April 7, at age 73, in a Nashville hospital of complications from COVID-19.
By then, Rhode Island schools, restaurants, senior centers and entertainment venues had been closed about three weeks, and visitors weren’t allowed in hospitals or nursing homes.
As “senior centers were closing, people were losing literal lifelines,” Jones said. Project HELLO recruited about 100 trusted volunteers willing to be matched with a senior seeking a phone call twice a week.
Sharon Mello, 70, of Middletown, was one of the first to be recruited. She was matched with two telephone buddies. One was Susan Boudreau, 61, of Warren.
“I like working with this type of project,” Mello said. “I think it’s important.” As a volunteer for Child and Family Services of Newport County, she had been a friendly visitor for a woman in her early 100s, back when meeting in person wasn’t likely to leave either party fighting for their life. “One time I didn’t call,” Mello said, “and she called me to see if I was OK.”
In March, when Mello first called her new friends, “I introduced myself, and… told them where I was from” and that she would be calling “to make sure their basic needs were met and ask if there was anything we could help them with.” She also asked what day and time of day they would like the calls. They both wanted mornings.
“At first they were kind of shy,” she said. “At first it was … a little bit like we just didn’t know each other.” She asked “how are you feeling, what do you need, are you OK, how can I help you?”
Boudreau said no one had ever treated her so nice. “She was just so happy about that,” Mello said.
The volunteers are given only the friend’s phone number, They’re not expected to shop for them or go beyond being phone friends. They can, however, point them to resources, chiefly the 24/7 help desk known as the Point, which is housed with United Way’s 211 help line in Providence.
Anyone 55 or older, living with a disability or providing care can call the Point at (401) 462-4444 or 2-1-1 anytime, according to the Office of Healthy Aging access page at oha.ri.gov/what-we-do/access. Those who answer have resources at their fingertips, for health care, employment and other types of assistance. They also help with applications into programs.
Boudreau had stocked up early, and the closed senior center has delivered meals made at the University of Rhode Island. Sandwiches alternate between turkey and ham, with tuna on Fridays. They get other essentials and information, like how to sign up for Project HELLO.
Mello calls first thing Monday, because she wants to be sure her friends have made it through the weekend. She calls on Thursday to check whether they have what they need for the weekend coming up. She gave them her phone number to call anytime.
Conversations are getting longer and more far-ranging. Mello wondered if Boudreau was savvy about scammers. Boudreau said one scammer warned her about scammers before rolling out his own scam. She knew exactly what to do. “I just let them just go right on, and then I just hang up.”
“She’s so darn cute,” Mello said. “She really does hold an animated conversation.”
Then she said, “I don’t know if I make a difference for them, but they make a difference for me.”
Mello, who worked at Newport Hospital for 35 years, has been a widow for 10 years. She feels compassion for “people who do not have a living soul” they can call a friend. “Once you get to a certain age,” she said, “You lose people. All their friends have died.”
Mello said she loves people, and loves helping people, and if anyone asks her to help out, “if it’s within my power to do it, I’ll do it. ”
Boudreau said she is also a people person, and she helps when she can, despite disabling pain in her back that she tries to ignore. She liked to stand at the senior center door and introduce herself, she said. One woman needed help putting in eye drops after cataract surgery, and Boudreau could do that for her.
Mello said she hopes the HELLO program will keep expanding long after the COVID-19 pandemic is over.
So does director Jones.
Since the first 100 volunteers were identified, Jones said, the number has grown to 565. Only 65 friends, however, have asked to be matched with a volunteer caller. “We need more friends to call,” she said.
Both Mello and Jones hope that as people hear about the program, they’ll call the Point to sign up, or a friend or family member might persuade them to take that step.
If the program still ends up with nearly 10 times as many volunteers as people who could use a call, Jones said, “we always take advantage of the opportunity to say, ’here are the full swath of volunteer opportunities.”
Mello said her other phone friend is around 80. “She is really with it. She’s fully aware of everything around her. People think that as you get older,” you miss most of what’s going on.
“It doesn’t matter,” Mello said. “You’re still a person.”
Prine knew that when he was 25 and “Hello in There” came out on his first album in 1971.
You know that old trees just grow stronger,
And old rivers grow wilder every day.
Old people just grow lonesome
Waiting for someone to say, “Hello in there, hello.”
On Twitter: @donita22