Best Friends seeks more male volunteers for Alzheimer’s care

January 13, 2015

150108BestFriends0012 Helmut Graetz, left, sits with Best Friends participant Velma Beatty as Tom Green performs. Graetz, 88, has been a Best Friend volunteer for many years, as have his wife and son.  Below, Graetz as a 16-year-old German paratrooper in World War II. Photos by Tom Eblen


Conventional wisdom used to be that caregivers could do little to intellectually and emotionally reach some people with Alzheimer’s disease, who can get anxious, frustrated and angry.

Then, three decades ago, the Best Friends Day Center in Lexington began pioneering new approaches that have been copied in more than 30 countries around the world. Along the way, the center’s caregivers have challenged gender-role stereotypes, too.

“Care-giving has usually been looked on as a woman’s role,” said Best Friends director Sherri Harkless. “I don’t think men have necessarily felt that they were needed or wanted.”

But they are at Best Friends, which has found that male volunteers can be especially successful at forming breakthrough relationships with participants — mainly men, but also some women.

“Our men volunteers are invaluable,” Harkless said. “They are very compassionate, and they bring a lot of ‘men skills’ with them that can be key.”

The Best Friends approach was started in 1984 by Virginia Bell, then a graduate student at what is now the Sanders-Brown Center for Aging at the University of Kentucky. After 20 years at Second Presbyterian Church, the center moved in 2013 to larger quarters at Bridgepointe at Ashgrove Woods, an assisted living facility in Jessamine County.

Bell has co-authored several books about Alzheimer’s therapy, and remains the driving force behind Best Friends at the energetic age of 92. She said she found that people with dementia respond well to a volunteer who learns the person’s life story, listens and uses respect, patience, empathy and humor to develop a friendship.

Connecting with memories and experiences locked deep in the brain can help a person with dementia become calmer and happier. That is one reason old popular music is often used as therapy.

“Under the dementia, there’s a real person,” Bell said. “People have had amazing lives, and if you know their story you can relate to them. A person may not know what day it is, but they can intuitively sense if you care.”

Caring is the main job of Best Friends’ volunteers, who spend at least two hours a week with one of the center’s 32 participants, 12 of whom are men. Volunteers range in age from high school students to people in their 80s and 90s.

Only 18 of current 88 volunteers are men, and Best Friends would like to have more. Bell said men are especially helpful with male participants, who sometimes have no interest in the center’s arts and crafts activities but enjoy talking about sports, their careers or their military service.

“We’re always looking for men volunteers,” Bell said. “They’re harder to find. But we have found some special ones.”

Tom Meyer, 72, started volunteering four years ago after moving to Lexington from Virginia. He spent his career in the Army and as a military contractor, and he thinks his experiences help him relate to participants who are veterans.

Volunteer Helmut Graetz, 88, a retired IBM engineer, also can relate to some participants’ wartime experiences — even though he was fighting on the other side.

Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.comGraetz was 16 when he became a German Army paratrooper. He fought in Italy, was captured in 1944 and spent four years in a British POW camp in Egypt. He then married Goodie, his wife of 62 years, in Germany and they eventually made their way to Canada and the United States. IBM brought them to Lexington.

After years as a volunteer riding instructor for Pony Clubs, Graetz got bored in retirement. His wife has volunteered at Best Friends for 22 years, so she suggested he try it. That was more than a decade ago. Now their son, Michael, 57, also volunteers.

“It’s wonderful to try to communicate with someone and try to make them feel better,” Graetz said. “I fought against the Americans and British, but I come over here and see that everyone is the same.”

Bill Tatman, a UK staff retiree, started volunteering two years ago after the death of his wife, who had been a Best Friends participant.

“I felt guilty the first day I brought her here, but I didn’t realize what a good place this was,” he said. “Now, being a volunteer is the best day of my week.”


Want to volunteer?  Best Friends Day Center needs volunteers, especially men. For more information, call volunteer coordinator Bobby Potts, (859) 258-2226.


Musician Tom Green performs for Best Friends participants and their volunteer helpers.

Lexington family and friends do good during ‘volunteer vacations’

March 18, 2014

130319Heitz-India0006Mike Heitz, left, and his wife, Janette, second from left, pose at Mother Clarac Matriculation School in Kumbakonam, India, where they worked with friends last month. Others, from left, are Sister Gladys; Sister Rosaria, the school’s founder, and Dan Lee from Singapore, a member of their volunteer group, which they call Fix-it Friends. Photo provided


Janette and Mike Heitz of Lexington love to travel, and they keep finding new ways to combine it with two of their other passions: bicycling and volunteer service.

The Heitzes organize bike trips to Europe with friends, and they have bicycled on their own in such far-flung places as Laos and Egypt. In 2006, Mike and their son, Cory, biked 7,435 miles down the length of Africa. The next year, Janette and their daughter, Jordan, biked 4,500 miles from Paris, France, to Dakar, Senegal.

A couple of weeks ago, the Heitzes returned from a different kind of trip. They, their daughter and more than a dozen friends from across this country, England and Singapore met in Kumbakonam, India. The group spent a week building basketball and tennis courts, painting a block wall and improving a computer lab at the Mother Clarac Matriculation School, run by the Sisters of Charity of Saint Mary.

This was the 13th such trip the Heitzes have taken in as many years.

“I don’t like to call it a mission trip,” Janette said. “I call it a volunteer vacation, because it’s not religion-based. We are just a group of people who have a little extra money and a little extra time and we like to travel. So each year we pick a third-world country and we all meet there.”

Mike started the tradition by participating in a Habitat for Humanity home-building trip to Ghana in 1999. He liked it so much, Janette joined him the next year.

“He thought he would ease me in,” she said, so they did a Habitat build in New Zealand. “I loved it. So the next year we jumped in the deep end and went to Mongolia.”

After that, the couple did annual Habitat builds in South Africa, Mexico, Costa Rica, Romania, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Then they decided to find their own projects along with friends they had met through Habitat and bicycling. Their group, which calls itself Fix-It Friends, includes a variety of faiths — Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, Jewish, Quaker and atheists.

The first Fix-It Friends trip was to Egypt. Then they went to Laos and Argentina, where they also worked with the Sisters of Charity. That led them to their recent trip to southwest India.

“We think education is the key to a better life,” Mike said. So, in addition to basic facility improvements, the group likes to provide computers to schools and orphanages where they work that have electricity. In addition to fixing old computers at Mother Clarac School and setting up a wifi network, the friends are buying 20 rugged $100 tablet computers for the school.

The Heitzes said they enjoy interacting with local people where they work. One day in India, while making the hour-long walk back to their hotel from the school, they came upon a wedding in progress.

“They saw us as some sign of good luck,” Janette said. “Here we were in our work clothes, I had paint splattered all over me, and they invited us in and took photos with us.”

The Heitzes arrived early to see some of India’s sights, including Gandhi’s tomb and the Taj Mahal. Then, after their week of volunteer work, they biked 30-40 kilometers a day for six days in the Kerela state of southeast India.

“It is the flattest part of India, and beautiful,” Janette said, but riding was tricky because “traffic laws are regarded as only a suggestion.”

The couple met at West Virginia University, where he was the basketball team’s first 7-footer (1968-72). Heitz’s younger brother, Tom, played for Kentucky (1979-84).

Mike is an investment banker who specializes in taking companies public. When the IPO market slowed five years ago, he also started a company that buys environmentally distressed industrial properties, restores and re-sells them. Their children work in his companies. Jordan Hurd and her mother also write a popular lifestyle blog, The Two Seasons (

Next year, the Fix-It Friends plan to meet in Colombia.

“To me, the important part of this is that we’re promoting goodwill,” Janette said. “People in these places don’t always have the most positive attitude about Americans. But my hope is that in the future when they think of Americans they will think of us and they will think of love. It’s like my little answer to world peace.”

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Volunteers make the Equestrian Games work

October 8, 2010

Some of the key performers at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games won’t win a medal — or even get on a horse.

But the show could not go on without the 6,000 volunteers who came from around the world to assist competitors, take tickets, direct traffic, drive golf-cart shuttles and perform a million other vital but unglamorous tasks.

“These people are absolutely critical in the entire scheme of the Games,” said Alltech President Pearse Lyons, whose company has been giving volunteers donuts each morning and snacks each afternoon. “They are the face of the Games, and without them we could not have put on such a successful show.”

You see volunteers everywhere at the Kentucky Horse Park, wearing yellow or blue Ariat polo shirts and caps — and, usually, a big smile.

Unfailingly cheerful volunteers greet me each morning as I step off the LexTran shuttle and each evening as I leave the park. All day, I see volunteers managing lines, giving directions, answering questions and ferrying people around this giant obstacle course of pedestrians, golf carts and bicycles.

“People just need information and direction; that I’ve got,” said Amy Waddingham, a volunteer from Colorado, who was energetically organizing school groups and moving them through the front gate like a veteran traffic cop.

The volunteer corps is getting good reviews.

“Some of them are a little bit too strict to the rules, but they are very friendly,” said Giel Hendrix, a journalist from the Netherlands. “They have made a good impression.”

“We’ve been getting a lot of good reports,” said Erin Faherty, WEG’s volunteer services director, whose management team arrives at 4:30 a.m. each day to begin checking in that day’s volunteers. “But there have been some logistical challenges, especially getting people where they need to be, when they need to be there, on a 1,200-acre park.”

About 1,200 volunteers work the Games each day. A record 1,700 volunteers were on duty last Saturday, when the park had its highest attendance of 51,000 people for the cross-country competition.

Volunteers work at least six nine-hour shifts. In return, they get food and free grounds-pass access for any day of the Games they’re not working. They get to keep their uniforms.

Volunteer planning and coordination began several years ago. By January, Games officials had confirmed about 1,200 volunteers.

Last winter, officials launched an aggressive campaign to recruit general and security volunteers — especially Kentuckians who wouldn’t have to spend a lot of their own money for lodging during the Games.

“My husband is always going on fishing trips with the boys, so this is my to-do,” said volunteer Becky Kauffman of Southern Pines, N.C., who was driving media shuttles. She was lucky to have a high school friend in Lexington to stay with, she said.

The trick for organizers is having enough volunteers at the right places and the right times so they are neither swamped nor bored.

Most volunteers said they were well-trained, except when it came to enough familiarity with the park layout to give directions. “There have been some issues, but I’ve been surprised by how well it’s going,” said volunteer Sue Stodola of Frankfort.

But Nadja Davidson of Carp, Ontario, was critical of the training, organization, food and logistics for volunteers. Davidson said she drove 16 hours from Canada and was spending $1,600 to stay in the area to volunteer. She felt Games organizers had been “inhospitable to volunteers … I would treat strangers in my own home better.”

“The organization for us has not always been on the top, but, on the whole, it is working,” said Sven Hedberg of Sweden, who is a volunteer translator. His sister lives in Mount Sterling, so he and his wife had a free place to stay.

“It’s been wonderful,” said volunteer Tom Timm of Niles, Mich. His wife, Linda, a teacher, agreed: “I had to take an unpaid leave to do this, but it has been well worth it.”

In addition to the Games volunteers, several hundred Rotary Club members from across the country have worked concession stands to raise money to fight polio.

Many Rotarians are professionals — such as the lawyer behind the checkout counter at lunch the other day, and the architect who was cleaning up trash at picnic tables. They both told me they were having a great time.

“We’ve had so much fun!” said former Lexington Vice Mayor Isabel Yates, an 80-something Rotarian who spent four days working at coffee stands with her friend, Beanie Pederson. “We’ve met people from everywhere — New Zealand, Australia, Brazil. It has really been something.”

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