By Susan T. Hessel  

When her nursing career ended sooner than expected because an injury made lifting patients impossible, Mary Beth Gianino needed something to provide meaning in her life. She found it as a Coulee Region RSVP volunteer driver. 

Driving gave her the opportunity to do something that fit into the anonymous quote she finds inspirational: “The capacity to care gives life its deepest significance.” 

While she does not use her technical nursing skills, the compassion Gianino has for patients continues. “It gave me the ability to care and continue to care for people in our community,” she said. 

RSVP, which stands for Retired and Senior Volunteer Program, is designed to connect the skills and experience of persons age “55 and better” with community needs. There are other ride services, but Gianino knows personally why RSVP’s service is so helpful.

“My mother was in a nursing home and had to take bus service from where she was living. She had to wait for other patients to be finished,” Gianino recalled. “My mother had a broken neck and was not in good shape. She had to wait three hours.”

RSVP provides a one-to-one, door-to-door driving service, including destinations outside of La Crosse, like Rochester in Minnesota, or Madison, Black River Falls or Cashton in Wisconsin. “It’s not that I ask people what’s wrong or for their diagnosis,” she said. “But when you ask someone how they are doing, everything pours out of them if you are a person who listens.”

One of her riders, Doris Ortis, describes Gianino as “very pleasant, nice, and jolly.” She told RSVP Executive Director Vanessa Southworth that she and Gianino love to tease each other, such as when Ortis frequently suggests that her driver has the wrong blinker on when it is not. “Mary Beth has a wonderful personality,” Ortis said.

Drivers do not attend appointments with riders but instead wait for calls when riders are ready to go home. While the drivers cannot accommodate people in wheelchairs, they provide transportation for those with canes or walkers. She usually brings her 10-pound Maltese poodle, Ziggy, when riders are comfortable. When the riders are having a tough time, Ziggy senses it and lays on the foot of the person who is having a tough time. Her dog helps open conversations and provide support.

Gianino loves to share moments of laughter with riders who are stressed or feeling sick. “I always try to bring some sun on somebody’s cloudy day.”

RSVP, which dates back to 1973, is part of Senior Corps, a part of the Corporation for National and Community Service. RSVP volunteers have choices about how and where they volunteer based on their personal interests and skills. 

Research shows health benefits for those who are served and those who volunteer, according to Southworth. “People feel they are doing something meaningful with their time. They improve their health by keeping active and having social interactions.”

In addition to the Volunteer Driver program, which can always use more drivers, RSVP has these programs: 

Telephone Reassurance

Volunteers call to check in daily and have friendly conversations with people in La Crosse and Monroe counties. Those served are often homebound or have the service at the request of distant loved ones.

Senior Share 

RSVP volunteers deliver food once a month to about 200 low-income seniors age 60 and older through the WAFER Food Pantry.   

Study Buddies

These volunteers in public and private schools share at least one hour of their time each week helping students academically and socially in reading and math tutoring, either individually or in small groups. 

Handcraft Program 

These volunteers may knit, sew and crochet items in groups or at home. Thousands of items like hats, mittens, quilts, wheelchair or walker bags, and baby layettes are donated to local social service agencies. Those that are created to help people stay warm are especially important in the winter.

Handy Helper Program

This provides limited fix-it services for individuals in need. It is designed to help individuals with disabilities, those who are low-income, and veterans and seniors who need minor home repair assistance. Handy helpers also help with Riverfront, Inc. (now known as Aptiv) and Habitat for Humanity. 

Special Event Volunteering

Volunteers may help with event registration, bulk mailings, craft assembly and other projects for
local nonprofit, educational and healthcare facilities. 

Blue Wrap Project

In collaboration with Gundersen Health System, volunteers recycle blue sterile surgical wrap by sewing the fabric into aprons for pediatric oncology patients, bedside bags, educational material bags, wheelchair/walker bags and patient care bags. 

Additional Opportunities

RSVP has placed volunteers in more than 90 volunteer stations, including healthcare facilities, food pantries, community gardens, AARP Tax-Aide, BloodCenter of Wisconsin, Coulee Council on Addictions, Coulee Region Humane Society, La Crosse County Health Department, La Crosse County Home-Delivered Meals, La Crosse Public Library, Mobile Meals of La Crosse, Myrick Park Center, Operation Homefront, Riverfront/Aptiv, Habitat ReStore and many more. 

Sister Karen Lueck and Matthew RabindraRSVP’s most important fundraiser each year is its “Who Will Be Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” event that pits a local adult celebrity against a fifth-grader. In 2018, the winners were Sister Karen Lueck, who is the immediate past president of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, and Matthew Rabindra from Blessed Sacrament School. 

That combination teamed up Lueck, who loves games and competition so much that she was actually a winner on “The Price Is Right” a decade or so ago, with Rabindra, who has wanted to compete since third grade and was chosen because he won the school Geography Bee.

“It was great to play with Matthew,” Lueck said. “We really worked well together. He is such a nice kid, really neat.”

The winning question was about the top grossing film of 2017, which Rabindra answered correctly as “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” The event raised $102,977.56 in 2018, with Lueck bringing in $3,477. Al Louis of Designing Jewelers raised the most—$20,396.34.

In a La Crosse Tribune article about the event, RSVP Board President Beth Curtis said the money raised is critical for the agency. “Government funds are decreasing—every year we have to raise more and more to keep going,” Curtis said. “We really appreciate the community coming together … without them we wouldn’t be able to continue what we do. La Crosse is a very giving community.”

When Southworth tells the story of RSVP, she talks about how the agency gave back to someone who has done the same for so many others. “This gentleman drove for us many, many years and it was so sad for all of us when he couldn’t drive any longer.” 

At a luncheon honoring the man, he and his wife happened to mention they had a new porch swing but could not put it together themselves. The organization’s Handy Helper volunteers went into action.

“He had given so many hours for so many people,” Southworth said. “This was how RSVP was able to give something back. It was such a feel-good moment.”

For more information on Coulee Region RSVP or how you can get involved in the “Who Will Be Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” event, which will take place at 10 a.m. on March 16 at Valley View Mall, visit www.rsvplax.org, email info@rsvplax.org or call (608) 785-0500.