Good Neighbors: Merri Fefles has a soft spot for seniors

Posted on

Dec 31, 2019

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Note: Anger, divisiveness and discord may have dominated the headlines in 2019, but as the late Fred Rogers once said, even in scary times, there is goodness. In this year that brought his spirit to life through the inspiring film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, we are lifted by his reminder: When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.

Indeed. To close the year on a positive and hopeful note, this week we introduce you to some of the helpers in your neighborhood.

Merri Fefles is both haunted and buoyed by something her late mother once told her.

She said, When you get to be a certain age people stop looking at you. You become invisible, Fefles said. "I am very cognizant of that now."

Fefles, who spent 10 years caring for her sick mother until she passed in 2017, said that remembrance is with her every minute she is helping seniors get the services they need through PLOWS Council on Aging.

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A professor of political science currently on sabbatical from Moraine Valley Community College, Fefles volunteers regularly with the nonprofit that serves senior citizens in 20 south suburban municipalities, including Worth, Blue Island, Oak Lawn and parts of Robbins.

She began a few years ago delivering meals to homebound seniors with her niece and nephew, Elena and Billy Hajjar of Tinley Park.

It was really eye-opening for all three of us. Were from this area and never realized how many people struggle. I feel almost ridiculous now. But you kind of live in your own little bubble. I didnt know that until I started working with PLOWS, she said.

Today she has expanded her role and now helps people over age 60 navigate the complex sea of forms that can be a barrier to benefits such as Medicaid, SNAP food stamps, help with home improvements. She also steers callers in the direction of the resources they need, whether its meal delivery or adult protection services.

Now were doing LIHEAT (Low income heat energy assistance), which gives people some assistance with their gas or electric bill, she said.

You feel a sense of responsibility working here, she said. Some days, she added, she gets so wrapped up in callers needs that she doesnt want to take lunch.

Sometimes Im moved to tears by peoples stories. So many remind me of my own mother. I miss her every day, she said.

Fefles, who lives in Tinley Park, said the work she does for PLOWS is rewarding because its necessary.

I love working here. Everything is very tangible. You do something for somebody, and theres immediate instant gratification -- for them and for me, she said.

In addition to helping people sort through the jargon, she is a friendly voice of comfort and confidence, said PLOWS spokeswoman Jen Petterson.

We are so lucky to have people like Merri who come to us and volunteer. She supports advocacy, guiding people on different resources out there. A lot of the government forms are very complex. As a nonprofit, we can guide people through those forms, Petterson said.

PLOWS, Petterson said, relies on volunteers to help serve 16,000 seniors annually.

The fact that Fefles connects with so many individuals on a personal level, Petterson said, is a bonus.

Fefles, 43, grew up in Palos Hills. She attended Stagg High School and MVCC before earning a bachelors from Elmhurst College and masters degrees from Arcadia University and Arizona State.

She completed graduate school in 2001 and landed a part-time teaching job filling in for a professor. A week after she started his classes, he fell ill and passed away suddenly.

I took over his classes and got hired the next spring, she said. He was a wonderful man. And I thank God every day for this job.

It was while she was working on her second masters degree and caring for her aging mother that she chose to fill a volunteer requirement through PLOWS.

Ive always had an affinity for older people, she said. I never had grandparents. Maybe in a way Im taking care of other peoples grandparents.

She said the work also creates balance in her life.

I teach political science, so I keep up with all the toxicity in the country today. It seems we cant talk to each other anymore, she said.

I help so many people who just want to talk to somebody. It makes me realize how many people just want someone to converse with, someone to care, she said.

I think if people just had real conversations it would break down a lot of the toxicity there is now in our environment. Its easier to find common ground when you talk face to face, she said.

Working here sort of restores my faith in humanity. I feel I get more out of it than I give," she said.

As a teacher, she said, she may occasionally get a student who comes back to tell her that she influenced a career decision.

But this is different. You see people everyday and help them everyday. And theyre so grateful. Makes me really appreciate what I have and the people I have around me, she said. You see so many people who dont have anyone.

Seniors have so much to offer people, she said, yet theyre often not given the opportunity to do so.

It almost seems like once you get to a certain age, youre deemed unnecessary. We kind of push them off to the side, she said.

I wish we could harness their wisdom, energy and talent.

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