Area seniors gathered Thursday at Fort Hays State University to celebrate 44 years of volunteerism and companionship.

The program, part of the national Senior Corps, began with FHSU as a sponsor in 1974 as a way for well elderly to help their frail peers, said its long-time director, Jolene Niernberger, at a celebratory brunch at FHSU’s Memorial Union Black and Gold Ballroom.

Volunteers, who are 55 and older, are paired with clients who need some assistance to remain independent and stay in their homes. Volunteers might help with chores around the house, offering transportation to appointments or for grocery shopping, or just helping someone stay in contact with the community.

The FHSU program has 108 volunteers serving more than 350 people in 14 counties. Volunteers do receive a stipend of $2.65 an hour.

The pay isn’t the only reason volunteers join, however.

“It’s not that at all. It’s the good feeling you get for helping somebody,” said Jack Burton, Plainville. He’s been a volunteer for about a year.

“The cost-effectiveness of the program is tremendous,” Neirnberger said. “It keeps the volunteer healthier and happier and contributing, and then it helps keep people in their homes.

“We’re really fortunate to have this in western Kansas because it’s so rural, and so many people that tare aging in place need support because families are not around to do it,” Neirnberger said.

Neirnberger said the local program, which was one of the first in the country, is one of the few to still have its original sponsor.

Several volunteers were recognized at Thursday’s banquet for their years of service, including Agnes Zwenger, Hays, who has 15 years with the program.

She said she first got involved when her sister and an aunt were both at Via Christi Village.

“It’s really rewarding and a lot of fun,” she said.

Her table companions at the banquet agreed.

“You feel like you’re making a difference in someone’s life,” said Jean Robinson, Hays.

Robinson got her friend, Rebecca Winslow, involved about a year ago.

“I love it. They have such interesting stories,” Winslow said of her clients.

“I think we all really enjoy what we do, and everybody that I talk to to I think pretty much feels the same way,” said Michelle “Mickey” Robertson, Hays.

Jim Paley, Stockton, became a volunteer about a year after his wife, Linda.

“They didn’t have any men in the program in Stockton, so I got volunteered,” he said with a laugh.

“I like being able to help somebody that needs help,” he said.

Volunteers also noted the program’s staff for their work. Arlene Schlyer, who spoke at the banquet, called for applause for Niernberger, Assistant Director Joy Fischer and Coordinator Jessica Shank.

“They really do a good job. They’e so good about coming out and visiting us,” Robinson said. “Jolene has such a good sense of humor. She makes everyone laugh.”