"Making the elderly happy, that is what counts."
These words of St. Jeanne Jugan, foundress of the Little Sisters of the Poor religious order, enliven the dedicated corps of young volunteers known as the Marian Aides and Hands of Hope.
A surge in membership to the group is in evidence at Our Lady of Hope Residence in Latham, a nursing home and senior apartment facility owned and operated by the Little Sisters.
During a ceremony later this month at at Our Lady of Hope, 11 girls will become Marian Aides, culminating a period of monthly classes and volunteer service.
The young women who already serve as Marian Aides (ages 10-13) and Hands of Hope (ages 14-18) will renew their consecration the Blessed Mother and to the association's ideals.
Sister Joan Patricia, LSP, program coordinator, said the Marian Aides have five ideals they strive to live by: joy and enthusiasm, love and service, humility, purity and modesty, and obedience and respect.
The Hands of Hope, using as their sign an anchor with hands outstretched, strive to be models of service, sacrificial love, purity, hope and respect.
Hands of Hope volunteer Katie Eads, 15, of Clifton Park, has been helping at the Residence for five years. She and her sister, Elizabeth, 10, a Marian Aide, and their brothers give several hours weekly to preparing dinner, visiting residents and assisting with bingo games.
The girls are matched with residents who often become surrogate grandparents. Katie told The Evangelist: "I've had the Sleasmans for four years. They really like the Mets, so we usually end up talking about baseball. If I come during a Mets game, there's usually no talking. We just watch the game.
"Being around the older people," Katie added, "makes me realize that all your friends don't have to be 14 or 15. I'm close with a lot of the people. It's really nice. They're so happy to see you."
"Their intergenerational presence brings much joy, enthusiasm and energy to all in Our Lady of Hope Residence," remarked Sister Joan.
Nora Sweeney of Amsterdam, who's 15, got involved in the program in 2005 when her grandmother became a resident at Our Lady of Hope. Her sister Lydia, 13, is a Marian Aide who will graduate to the Hands of Hope this month.
"It's given me a new respect for the elderly," Nora mused. "They're not just old people waiting to die. They're very important people of society and they add a lot to my life now.
"I've learned to respect people for who they are and not what they look like or how they appear," Nora added. "Older people don't always look healthy or may not appear to know what's going on, but when you spend time with them, you see that they have a large awareness."
Dominika and Antonya Truesdell of Castleton spend Friday afternoons assisting with everything from laundry to yard work. Dominika, 15, a part of Hands of Hope, said her favorite task is serving the residents at lunch.
She said she has drawn inspiration from the joy and happiness of the Little Sisters of the Poor. For her, the greatest benefit of working as a volunteer is "giving to others and sacrificing."
At the upcoming ceremony, Antonya, 13, will move up to the Hands of Hope program. She enjoys seeing "the smiles on the faces of the residents, to know that I've made someone happy and have helped them."
Antonya's most memorable experience involved a 104-year-old resident who passed away last year.
"She hardly ever spoke and hardly ever smiled. One day I was polishing her nails and she smiled and mumbled a few words. Knowing that she smiled made me happy. And later a nurse told me that she said, 'Thank you.'"
The Truesdell girls' mother, Doreen, says the program offers invaluable lessons: "It helps them feel comfortable with the ill and the invalid, and to learn that these people deserve our respect and love. Their best friends are in the program and it gives them a chance to socialize."
Mrs. Truesdell said it also gives young people an opportunity "to be around religious who are very devoted to Christ and to their vocation."
The Marian Aides, she said, is not "a 'nuns-in-training program,' but it does raise vocations awareness. What I love about the program is that the sisters are helping our daughters to become virtuous young Catholic women."