BELFAST, Maine — Every single morning, Betty Vanidestine picks up her phone and calls a dispatcher working at the Waldo County Regional Communications Center.
The 70-year-old Jackson woman has lived alone since her boyfriend died a year ago and has epilepsy. It makes her feel good to know that the dispatchers are expecting her call, thanks to the county’s Friendly Caller program. If they don’t hear from her between 6 and 10 a.m., someone will call her. If she doesn’t answer, a sheriff’s deputy will go check on her right away.
“Oh, it’s wonderful,” she said of the program. “Just to know that somebody knows what I’m doing and that I’m okay.”
Vanidestine — a friendly, chatty woman clad in a sparkly holiday sweater — knows the rotating crew of dispatchers by their voices on the phone only. At least, that was true until Wednesday evening, when she came to a holiday party for the Friendly Caller program held at the Waldo County Emergency Management Agency’s conference room.
Another member of the program, 74-year-old Dorothy Gordon of Prospect, went around the room, enthusiastically hugging the various dispatchers.
“This program should last forever, because there’s plenty of people out there who could use it,” she said. “It doesn’t cost anything — it’s a phone call for their own survival.”
Dispatchers and center officials hope that more people will start thinking like Gordon. They know there’s a lot of elderly or disabled folks living on their own who could use the program, which could accommodate far more than the 9 people currently taking part in the decade or so that it has been in existence.
“We’re always open to anybody who’s interested,” Andy Cardinale, a dispatcher, said.
A few years ago, the program helped save the lives of two different people who had fallen and couldn’t reach the phone when the dispatchers called them. Responding deputies found the people on the floor, unable to get help, but thanks to the program, help came to them anyway.
“Maine’s the oldest state in the union, and Waldo County’s got more than its fair share,” Owen Smith, the director of the center said. “We’re talking about a generation that doesn’t willingly ask for help.”
The participants also said that the program is not just friendly in name only.
Alonzo Perkins of Knox said that he’s been part of it “since the beginning,” and that he enjoys just talking to the dispatchers who answer the phone.
“It gives me a chance to get some things off my chest,” he said.
Sometimes the callers alert the dispatchers about scams targeting the elderly and other problems they might be having.
“We encourage them to talk,” Smith said.
Shirley Bessey of Knox is 87, and lives alone. She put the program’s value into succinct words.
“It’s a really comforting feeling to know that there’s a program like this going on,” she said.
For information about the Friendly Caller program or to register, please contact the Waldo County Regional Communications Center at 338-2040.