Chele Miller, Visiting Nurse Home Care & Hospice Volunteer, Recognized for Service to New Hampshire
June 25, 2021
Chele Miller, Volunteer for Visiting Nurse Home Care and Hospice (VNHCH), was recently named by The New Hampshire State Commission on Aging as one of this year’s recipients of the Older Adult Volunteer Awards. These awards have been bestowed each year since 1962 during the month of May, coinciding with the nationally celebrated Older Americans Month. These awards honor individuals or couples aged 60 or older who have shown outstanding leadership or achievement as a volunteer serving to build strong communities in each of New Hampshire’s 10 counties.
Julie Lanoie, Hospice Volunteer Coordinator for VNHCH, shares the story of how Miller began an innovative and important project for the agency.
It all started with elastic.
In February of 2020, while the country was debating whether or not masks might be useful in fighting against the invisible enemy that was still in faraway places, Visiting Nurse Home Care and Hospice of Carroll County rallied a small group of volunteers who began to sew. They weren’t sure what the demand would be, but they had a sense that it would be wise to get ahead of it.
Their first goal was to create a supply for the caregivers and the homebound people they served in their community. They knew that while many services might close their doors, the need for home care would never stop, and they wanted to make it as safe as possible for everyone.
The stitchers refined their design and pooled their supplies of fabric and thread, their stashes of elastic, and even narrow strips of metal roof flashing they cut to create adjustable
nose pieces. There was one volunteer among them who wanted to help but was not adept at the machine. When someone ran out of elastic one day, she offered to pick-up a resupply from someone across town and deliver, and that was the moment when Chele Miller became the Mask Maiden.
Within a week she was the courier and coordinator of the entire operation. Shuttling supplies, doling out miles of rationed elastic from industrial spools, and coordinating all communications between the team. She was also the finisher, collecting the completed masks, washing, drying, pressing, and packaging every single one. While the total count is lost to time, it was thought to be in the thousands.
The masks were given to homecare and hospice patients and their families, patients and staff of the local mental health center, the homeless waystation, the food shelf, Meals on Wheels drivers, and basically anyone who needed one. When the stitchers ran out of fabric in early spring, there was a drive to collect dress shirts. Chele took the lead on collecting, washing, deconstructing, then distributing the shirting fabric to the stitchers, and collecting them once again when they had been made into masks.
Her legwork maximized the team’s productivity and ability to meet the needs of the community. Her weekly reports kept the group inspired. The masks made by this dedicated group got a reputation for being the most comfortable and stylish, (as far as masks go) in the town.
When The Farmers Market of Tamworth was planning to re-open to the public in May 2020, and was implementing a mask wearing policy for safety, they approached the team about supplying the townspeople and visitors with free masks so that no-one would be turned away. Chele spearheaded this entire operation too, and personally set up and manned a table at the entry to the market every single Saturday for the entire summer, fall, and winter of the COVID year.
After handing out free masks for a month and feeling that the initial need had been met, Chele suggested that it would be fair to charge a small fee for the masks in the months ahead, and the team agreed. It was her idea that all proceeds be donated to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) which would help to feed the townspeople, many who were now out of work, while also supporting the farmers. Over the next seven months, over $6,000 were raised. The SNAP program had never been so well funded.
Once that goal was met, Chele redirected the proceeds to Visiting Nurse Home Care and Hospice, and The Tamworth Community Nurse Association, raising another $1,300. Chele drove hundreds of miles over the course of the year, did endless loads of laundry, and gave all of her Saturdays to the cause. Her coordination was essential to keeping the mask makers well supplied, organized, informed, and appreciated. The impact of Chele’s leadership in 2020 was far reaching. Not only did the masks help protect the health of the community, but her collaborative creativity formed new community partnerships that will be long lasting in the years ahead. Julie added, “Like the elastic none of us could live without in 2020, Chele held us all together.”
After receiving this recognition, Chele asked that the incredible work of everyone who actually made the thousands of masks also be recognized.
VNHCH Executive Director Sandy Ruka, RN, stated, “Volunteers like Chele make it possible for a small community agency like us to do important work. We are grateful for her service and are so proud of her for being recognized by the State Commission on Aging. We are grateful to everyone on the team who worked so hard to make these masks!”
Rebecca Sky, Executive Director of the State Commission on Aging said, “Civic minded residents like these award winners who are willing to dig into the weeds and serve their communities are the heroes who make our communities the thriving, welcoming places we want them to be. They remind us of the difference any one of us can make at any age. This has been a challenging year that has adversely affected so many. I and all of us on the Commission on Aging are grateful for the opportunity to be able to celebrate older adults in our communities.”
Older Americans Month seeks to recognize the contributions of older adults across the nation. This year’s theme, “Communities of Strength,” acknowledges that older adults have built resilience and strength over their lives through successes, failures, joys, and difficulties and have much to offer our communities.
Recipients from NH’s counties are:
Belknap County: Mary Strong of Alton
Carroll County: Chele Miller of Wonalancet
Cheshire County: Barbara Rockwell of Stoddard
Coos County: George Sanschagrin of Berlin
Grafton County: Larry Steigleman of Concord, VT
Hillsborough County: Beverly Cotton of Weare and Yvonne La Garde of Pelham
Merrimack County: Kathy Conk-Ryder of New Boston
Rockingham County: Claire Ruocco of Exeter
Strafford County: Norman “Norm” Sanborn of Tilton
Sullivan County: Linda Smith of Newport
For more information on VNHCH, visit them online at www.VNHCH.org or call 603-356-7006.