Living alone in the East Bay, Rena Martin looks forward to waking up with her morning coffee and a phone conversation with a volunteer from Alta Bates Summit Medical Center’s Tele-Care Program. Staffed entirely by volunteers, this nationally renowned program provides free, regular calls to individuals who are homebound, isolated or at risk.
Rena’s son learned about Tele-Care six years ago and put his mom on the call list. Though she had worked as a nurse in Texas before moving to the Bay Area, she had never heard of a patient service like this. It quickly became a cherished part of her life.
“I love it—it is lifesaving,” Rena proclaims. “Knowing someone is taking an interest in me improves my well-being and gets me ready for the day.”
Started in 1970 at what was then Herrick Hospital in Berkeley, the Tele-Care Program serves hundreds of clients in Alameda, Contra Costa and San Francisco counties each year. The phone calls give clients companionship and joy in hearing a friendly voice—both excellent deterrents to social isolation, a growing problem throughout the U.S. that can have significant negative repercussions for physical and mental health. A recent study found that loneliness and isolation increase the risk of heart disease by 29% and stroke by 32%.
Tele-Care can also serve as a safety net should a client ever miss a call or a volunteer sense trouble while on the line. At least 25 times every year, volunteers alert emergency services that someone has fallen, had a stroke or suffered a heart attack.
In fact, one time Rena had been rushed to the hospital, so she wasn’t home to receive her regularly scheduled call. Concerned, the volunteer notified each of her emergency contacts and learned she was safe—but had her loved ones not yet known Rena’s status, that call would have alerted them. Rena was delighted to learn that the system had worked so smoothly.
Volunteers Create Lasting Connections
Like Rena, Susan Clark Cassone is grateful for Tele-Care, having benefitted from the service for several years when her mother was a client. Susan then went on to volunteer for the program for 11 years. “Tele-Care was such a blessing to me and my siblings,” she says. “We were all working full-time when our mother began having health troubles late in life, so knowing that someone would call to check on Mom was a tremendous relief.”
Susan’s family was first introduced to Tele-Care many years prior by the late Melva Gage, one of their mother’s longtime friends from church. Melva volunteered with the program for more than 40 years, always sharing her passion for it with others.
“Melva told everyone she ever met about Tele-Care,” Susan says. “I knew after my mom passed that Tele-Care was where I wanted to volunteer and give back to the community.”
Volunteers, who range in age from 18 to 99, play a crucial role in creating a nurturing and caring environment for clients to help them thrive. Younger volunteers are often looking to gain experience in the healthcare field and test out potential careers, while many older volunteers do it to find greater purpose in retirement.
Susan especially liked to volunteer on holidays, knowing that they were just as important as any other day to be in touch—and that she might be the only person a client spoke with that day. But the program’s impact can be equally powerful for volunteers, connecting them to community members in meaningful ways.
“With one client, I shared a love of books,” Susan recalls. “She mentioned she couldn’t locate a particular book, one that I had a copy of on my shelf, so I sent her my copy and we continued corresponding over the years. She still sends me a Christmas card.”
Transformational Legacy Gift
Susan was hardly the only volunteer inspired by Melva’s four decades of service. According to Julie Shulga, Melva’s niece and the executor of her estate, Tele-Care was a central joy in Melva’s life. She’d often share stories about her clients and the friendships she’d forged while recruiting others to join her in volunteering.
“It meant everything to her,” Julie says. “Melva would have long conversations with clients, who were like family. She really cared about people, wanted to help everybody and was a true ambassador for the Tele-Care Program.”
Melva found her passion project just after marrying Nathaniel “Nat” Gage, who didn’t want her to work but encouraged her to pursue causes she cared deeply about. Although Nat and Melva came from different worlds, Julie says they were a perfect fit for each other and deeply in love. He was a colonel in the U.S. Army, managing logistics during service in the Vietnam War, before retiring from the military and settling in the Bay Area. In his second career at AC Transit, Nat became a driving force behind the creation of BART. In that job, he met Melva, who had recently moved with three friends from Ohio to California for the warmer weather.
“It was so wonderful for our family to meet Melva, and my uncle was so in love with her,” Julie recalls. “Our family reunions were quite large— my uncle was one of seven children—and everyone just adored her. She was incredibly social and fun to be around.”
Julie’s family also admired Melva’s dedication to Tele-Care, which, it turns out, ran deeper than even ABSMC realized. After Melva’s passing in late 2020, the hospital’s philanthropy team was notified that Nat and Melva’s estate had left $1 million to the program. Although Melva had given ABSMC a handful of gifts ranging from $25 to $500 over the years, the news of such a significant donation to this important community service came as a wonderful surprise.
“It is always humbling to see the tremendous generosity of our community members,” says Jody Policar, director of philanthropy for Sutter Health in the East Bay. “Melva touched so many lives during her 40 years of volunteerism, and her legacy will live on at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center. This generous planned gift will ensure that the Tele-Care Program continues to serve our community.”
Indeed, planned gifts of this magnitude are essential to supporting programs like Tele-Care for decades to come. We hope that other community members volunteer to carry on Melva’s passion and perhaps consider gifts of their own.