Interfaith nonprofit provides support for elderly, veterans, caregivers

BY Lauren Wanko, Correspondent |
Every week, Toms River resident Howard Hamilton welcomes a special visitor: Lily, his four-legged companion. He pets her and she cuddles up next to him.

“The best part is getting all of the attention,” said Hamilton.

Lily and her owner Katherine Perrino are with Caregiver Volunteers of Central Jersey, an interfaith nonprofit dedicated to providing assistance to the elderly, veterans and caregivers.

“Most people want to be in their homes, there’s no place like home, they’re surrounded by things they love, that’s their comfort level and a lot of people just need a little help to stay in their homes,” said the organization’s Executive Director Lynette Whiteman.

Perrino is one of 1,200 volunteers who serves those in Northern Ocean and Southern Monmouth Counties. Lily, a certified therapy dog, is part of the organization’s Caregiver Canines Pet Therapy program. Lily and Katherine travel to people’s homes.

“They seem to really enjoy the company, the physical contact with an animal that is responding to them. It’s almost like a little kid hugging a teddy bear,” said Perrino.

Since many of the elderly in the program don’t drive, volunteers take them to the doctor or food shop for them.

“I guess it’s kind of selfish. It makes me feel good,” said volunteer Marian Florentine.

Florentine shops for groceries for Toms River resident Rose Thomas every other week, and the two have become close friends.

“It’s a wonderful thing. I don’t know what I would do without this service,” said Thomas.

The nonprofit also has a program for caregivers of individuals with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. Volunteers receive additional training and are matched with families to provide relief in their homes every week, giving caregivers a break.

“They can do whatever they need to, so they take a nap, they go shopping, they visit their own friends,” said Whiteman.

The nonprofit also serves those with Alzheimer’s and dementia with their “Connection Thru Music” program.

A youth and adult mentor visit with an elderly person in their home and bond over music. Brody Bonelli, who is 13 years old, and 85-year-old Bonnie Ball of Toms River sing all of her favorite songs.

“The music is just the bridge to the connection, so they really become buddies and friends, and it’s an amazing phenomenon,” said Francine Pannella, manager of the organization’s Alzheimer’s Respite Care Program.

Ball is in a rehab facility, where Bonelli now visits her.

“It’s awesome seeing her smile all the time, it’s amazing,” said Bonelli.

The 85-year-old says the music reminds her of her childhood.

“It makes me feel like I’m back in West Virginia,” said Ball.

Caregiver Volunteers of Central Jersey conducts background checks on their volunteers. The nonprofit, which serves about 2,000 people, relies on private donations and some public funding. Volunteers insist they benefit from the experience as much as the people they’re helping.

“They start out as strangers and they become family,” said Whiteman.