The more you learn about CareLink, the more you realize what a perfect name it is for an organization that connects older people and their loved ones with the services they need to age with grace. The nonprofit’s mission is to be the “area agency on aging” for central Arkansas, providing resources such as food, in-home care, companionship and wellness programs that are integral to a person’s sense of well-being.
Now in its 40th year serving Faulkner, Lonoke, Monroe, Prairie, Pulaski and Saline counties, CareLink employees have their eyes on the future. Spearheaded by Randi Metcalf, CareLink’s vice president of development, the nonprofit is anticipating the needs of the Arkansans turning 65 each day — needs and desires that look completely different from those of the previous generation. All the while, CareLink is looking to expand and bolster its current programs that include Meals on Wheels, in-home respite care, fitness classes, all-inclusive medical care through a partnership with Baptist Health and more.
“We’re the only one-stop senior services nonprofit,” Metcalf says. “There are so many services for children and homeless and different treatment centers and things like that, but there’s just not a lot for the elderly … With a little bit of help, people are able to stay in their homes a lot longer than they would have without CareLink.”
Metcalf’s story with CareLink began when she was a 25-year-old social worker who landed a job as assistant to Elaine Eubank, CareLink’s then-assistant CEO. After that, she became the development director, then development vice president where she has her hand in public relations, fundraising and senior leadership. This year marks her 11th year with the nonprofit.
According to Metcalf, fundraising is what keeps the organization going. She remembers vividly a long-time donor who called to ask what other programs needed funding.
“I had been in talks with our CEO about a program I really wanted to see us start,” she says. “I told the donor about my idea and she said, ‘I love it, let’s start it.’”
That was the beginning of CareLink’s Urgent Needs program, a fund for issues that would keep seniors from staying in their homes, issues like plumbing problems or a lack of handrails that take a back seat when they’re “literally down to choosing between food and medications.”
Urgent Needs is a passion project of Metcalf’s and it’s clear by the stories that spill out when she talks about the program. The first recipient of the Urgent Needs fund, for example, had a large water leak outside his home, spotted by one of CareLink’s social workers. CareLink was able to spend less than $200 to get the leak fixed, and the social worker took it a step further and called the water company to let them know they had been charging a single man for the water usage of 30 people for the last 11 months, and the company reimbursed the man.
“We have that program that when there’s nowhere else to turn, and they literally may have to leave their home, we have that little bit of money that we fundraise hard for to spend on things like that... That’s the most rewarding thing for me — identifying a need, finding the source for it and watching it get used for its purpose.”
Navigating the world of senior care in a state where senior hunger is rampant isn’t easy. According to a recent joint report by the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger and Feeding America, Arkansas now ranks as the fifth worst state for seniors facing the threat of hunger.
CareLink’s Meals on Wheels program is actively meeting that need by preparing 900 hot meals for seniors in central Arkansas every day who can no longer cook or leave the house. Meals are delivered by a team of more than 250 volunteers and staff drivers to homes in Little Rock, Maumelle and North Little Rock, as well as through senior center partners in its six-county area to provide meals outside the metro.
“We’re meeting their needs physically with the meals, but we’re also meeting that emotional need of interaction,” Metcalf says.
The organization is also seeking new ways to take care of the ever-growing aging population. There is a real focus on innovation within CareLink so they can be poised to serve the next generation. One of the needs the team identified is transportation, so Subaru donated a car in 2018 for Meals on Wheels, and this year, the nonprofit added four more Subaru vehicles to its fleet. Since CareLink’s grant funding is limited, Metcalf and her team are also searching for business initiatives to help rase money throughout the year.
But at CareLink, everyone rolls up their sleeves. At Thanksgiving, Metcalf and crew bake pies to raise money. The first year, three staff members handmade 264 pies from scratch, staying so late to bake sweet potato and apple pies that they passed the kitchen staff coming in the next morning. Though the pies were a hit (the sweet potato recipe was Patti LaBelle’s), they made a pact not to pull any more all-nighters in the kitchen.
CareLink’s biggest fundraising event of the year came to life five years ago. Cupcakes for Goodness Sake has grown from about 100 attendees the first year to more than 600 in 2018. The event is now a fall street festival in Argenta complete with a cupcake competition, craft beer, vendors, live music and food trucks.
“[That event is] important to us to not only raise funds but also reach other generations and demographics that we wouldn’t normally reach,” Metcalf says. “For us to see young families and people in their twenties at a CareLink event is a big deal because for so long we were only known by older people and maybe their family members.”
Over the past 40 years, the nonprofit’s programs have grown and changed as the organization better positions itself to serve central Arkansas. But one thing that remains the same is its central mission to provide those things every person deserves — a safe place to live, nutritious meals, human interaction and access to medical care.
With passionate individuals leading CareLink into the future, it’s easy to see that Arkansas’ aging population is in caring and capable hands. But there may be a few less sweet potato pies.