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Volunteers find 'friends' in probate court program

By Linda Looney-Bond

lbond@news-daily.com

Several local adults, who are unable to care for themselves, have been receiving companionship and social interaction through a Clayton County Probate Court program called Clayton Visiting Friends.

Probate Court Judge Pam Ferguson launched the program in May 2008.

"It's something God put on my heart ... just seeing the need of people in nursing homes or assisted-living facilities ... where they weren't getting a lot of contact," she said.

Ferguson said she envisioned local volunteers working with local incapacitated adults who have little or no family, or friends, to visit or interact with them.

"Some of them are mentally retarded individuals, some have dementia or Alzheimer's, some were born this way," said Ferguson.

Clayton County Probate Court oversees hundreds of adult guardianship cases in which individuals have been found to lack the capacity to care for themselves, according to Ferguson. When a guardian is needed and there is no family member or friend willing and able to step in, the Georgia Department of Human Resources is appointed as the guardian, according to Ferguson.

Ten "DHR wards," and seven volunteers, currently participate in the Clayton Visiting Friends program, according to a press release issued by the Clayton County Probate Court.

In addition to providing social interaction, the volunteers also check to make sure the wards are cared for on a regular basis, according to the release.

"It's very rewarding," said Janet Gilbert, a Stockbridge resident who has volunteered with the program since its beginning. "Pam - Judge Ferguson - is in my Rotary Club and she mentioned that she had seen this program in another county and wanted to see it in Clayton County.

"My mother-in-law was in a nursing home, or assisted-living [facility] here in Clayton County, and seeing the people that didn't have visitors ... I felt passionate about getting involved in a program like that," Gilbert said. "I guess I'd seen it from the other side, just visiting family, and seeing people that had no one."

Gilbert said she pays regular visits to two people through the Clayton Visiting Friends program.

"The two people that I visit - one person is bedridden now - and the woman that I visit has Alzheimer's, so it's been a challenge for her to recognize me and get to know me," Gilbert said. "Now when I visit her, she smiles and it's really rewarding. I wish more people could get involved."

Local business owner Lata Chinnan, of Riverdale, said volunteering for Clayton Visiting Friends is a way for her to give back to the community.

"It's really worthwhile to go and see these people at least once a month, especially the person I have. She has nobody. That was kind of sad," said Chinnan, who has also volunteered with the program since its inception.

"My friends, we go together. We visit the wards together, so it's also networking and fun," Chinnan said. "I'm glad that I'm part of this program, and I hope they add more volunteers. I think we have an obligation to give back to the community."

In addition to visiting designated wards at least once per month, the volunteers meet monthly to discuss concerns and to share good news about the wards, according to the court's press release.

Each volunteer must complete a training and orientation program, agree to a criminal background check, and be sworn in to protect the interest of the wards, according to the statement.

For more information about Clayton Visiting Friends, or to volunteer, contact Stacey Ray of the Clayton County Probate Court at (770) 472-8124.