The year is 1946, the place, France. World War II has only recently ended, and the people of Europe struggle. Poverty runs high, and many in the community lost loved ones in the war. But it is out of this sadness and struggle that something beautiful begins to grow: Little Brothers – Friends of the Elderly.
“Our organization started in France as Little Brothers – Friends of the Poor,” says executive director and Dellwood resident James Falvey. “Founder Armand Marquiset created a foundation where young men could serve the poor.” These men lived like monks and dedicated their lives to serving the community. As time went on, the monks, or “little brothers,” began to notice a trend: Many older folks were living alone after losing loved ones in the war. As they noticed this, their definition of poverty began to change. Poverty began to mean, “not having what you need,” says Falvey, who argues human connection is just as important as access to food, water or shelter. “Flowers before bread,” he says.
In 1972, the organization took root in the Twin Cities. The name changed to Little Brothers – Friends of the Elderly (Lbfe), although by this time, women were taking part, too. Today, the organization connects isolated elders with volunteers in their communities in hopes of combating a serious and sometimes unnoticed type of poverty: isolation. “As we age, the first thing that isolates us is we retire,” says Falvey. Connections move or pass away, and before we know it, isolation can set in.
“We’ve been finding that the people we serve become trapped in their own home,” Falvey says. “They can go months without hearing someone speak their name.” And to Falvey, this is unacceptable. “We don’t want to age in place if that means solitary confinement,” he says. Lbfe has recently begun to rely almost entirely on volunteers. Each visiting volunteer is paired with an elder in his or her community and, many times, it becomes a life-changing experience for both. Falvey says one volunteer, after visiting with an elder for nine months, finally received a hug. “This is someone who dug up a treasure chest—the stories, the life experiences, the perspectives,” Falvey says.
White Bear Lake resident Donna Divine is another volunteer who has uncovered a treasure. Divine started volunteering with Lbfe after she retired, and she was soon paired with an elder— also named Donna. “We’re both into card-making [and] dogs; we’re both divorced, both mothers,” Divine says. “She’s very easy to have a friendship with.” The two keep in touch through email and homemade cards, and they get together about once a month for coffee and conversation. “I consider Donna a friend, and most times I don’t even remember that it’s a volunteer gig,” Divine says.
Little Brothers – Friends of the Elderly also has a program called Friendship and Flowers, where volunteers distribute cookies and flowers to nursing homes in the Twin Cities area. “We are not human if we are only doing the necessities of life,” Falvey says. “This is about bringing beauty into lives.”
Falvey hopes to start a movement by encouraging the community to engage with their aging neighbors. “It really just takes somebody who has a big heart and wants to make a difference in the world,” he says, “someone who wants to dig up that treasure.”