Call it kismet or karma or destiny or fate or God’s will. Or just call it a calling. By whatever name, Jennifer Waggener believes some inevitable force led her to this place, that every step in her multifaceted career prepared her for this preordained work on behalf of seniors.
She’s director and founder of the Kanawha and Putnam chapters of Faith in Action, a nonprofit group of volunteers devoted to filling gaps in services that allow more seniors to live independently in their homes.
Services provided by volunteers include taking clients (known as care receivers) to doctor appointments and the grocery store, interacting socially through regular, reassuring phone calls and making minor home repairs.
Introduced in 2014 with 11 volunteers, the program now has a roster of 160 helpers and a client list of more than 420.
Fed up with negativity about the state, she launched a periodic newspaper filled with positive stories about the valley. In Raleigh, North Carolina, she was director of marketing for an international construction company. Back home, she managed Taylor Books.
Then, as office manager for the Alzheimer’s Association, she recognized the many unfulfilled needs of caregivers and set out to find a solution. She discovered her life’s mission, her meant-to-be passion, through Faith in Action.
“I grew up in South Charleston. My dad was Dean Blake, a pretty well-known figure. He was a star basketball player for Charleston High School and went on to play on a scholarship at Virginia Tech, VPI at the time.
“When I was really young, I wanted to be a teacher. I played school. I would force my little brother to sit at the desk and I made up worksheets.
“One Christmas, my parents bought me a box of office supplies — tape and pencils and a pencil sharpener, erasers and an electric typewriter. That was my greatest Christmas ever.
“I’ve always been interested in learning, and I’ve been a big reader my whole life. I was reading before I went to school. Last time I checked, I still had the summer reading record at the South Charleston Public Library.
“I did not end up teaching. In high school, I had a couple of teachers who stoked my love of politics and writing. I decided in high school I was going to be the next managing editor for Vanity Fair magazine, based in New York City. That was my goal. But life takes you in different directions, and I’ve had a pretty solid career nonetheless.
“I went to [West Virginia University] but didn’t graduate. I got married instead and started our family. My husband is a geologist. I worked in Morgantown until he graduated and we had our baby girl, and then we moved back to Charleston.
“I’ve always had a creative bent. I had a partner here, and we started a magazine called Focus on the Valley in the early ’90s. We were sick of the negativity happening around our communities. We started to realize that it was not just negative influences from the outside and stories being told about us as much as stories told internally with people who lived here. It takes a lot more to overcome that kind of negativity than the external kind.
“We started this magazine to highlight positive stories about things happening in the valley. We were in existence about six years and published every two months. Every story we told was uplifting.
“We started the Best of Charleston Awards before anyone else, where we were honoring businesses and organizations and people doing great things in the community.
“I had this small cable TV show that ran out of the Culture Center that was based on the magazine. I did that with my son on my hip, carrying him around. It didn’t make me rich. I think my biggest paycheck was $300, but it was super rewarding and it taught me a lot.
“My husband’s company asked him to move to Richmond, [Virginia], to start up an office there in late 1994. We were there about seven years. The same company asked him to start an office in Raleigh, and we were there about eight years. We’ve been home since 2009.
“We were happy and doing our thing in Raleigh. Then he got a job offer in Charleston. We kind of laughed it off. He got another offer, this one in Pittsburgh. And he got a third offer back in Charleston. We thought maybe somebody was trying to tell us something, that maybe it was time to think about going home.
“I had a pretty big job in Raleigh. I was director of marketing for an international construction company and doing these huge multimillion-dollar projects and proposals. It was a pretty intense and well-paying job.
“I knew that kind of job would not be here. I wanted to try to find something that fed my soul more than my pocketbook. Thankfully, my husband was a great source of support and patience.
“I started as a book buyer for Taylor Books, my favorite place in all of Charleston. And that quickly grew into managing the store. I did that for a couple of years. But retail is a hard life.
“I loved every second at Taylor Books, but I decided it was time to look for something a little more real. An opportunity opened for the Alzheimer’s Association as office manager. It was a small job, but I just wanted to be part of something that meaningful.
“I called myself the director of gratitude because my job was to thank people and be on the phone all day and write the thank-you letters. It was an amazing cause to work for.
“I poured my heart into that job. It’s kind of crushing at times, working with families dealing with that kind of journey. There really isn’t a lot of hope you can offer.
“I decided to take matters into my own hands. I got frustrated when we would send people off in search of additional services and there just wasn’t a lot. I thought there had to be something more we could do.
“I did a lot of research and realized that we were the second-oldest state in the country and will be the oldest demographically in a couple of years.
“We aren’t near ready to deal with the level of help that is going to be needed — senior housing and caregiving services, all those things. I started doing some homework.
“The Alzheimer’s Association saw the passion I had for it, so they allowed me to pursue this research while I was working there, a huge blessing.
“I had an opportunity to go to Houston to talk to some people about what they were doing. I talked to people from Columbus, Ohio, Indianapolis, California, all over the country about what communities are doing for seniors who need a little helping hand to age in place and stay in their homes.
“The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a huge philanthropic organization, created this Faith in Action volunteer caregiving model about 35 years ago. They planted the seed money in several communities around the country, and one of the first communities to have it was Wheeling.
“Their executive director was still there, Jeanette Wojcik, so I reached out to her, and she was so thrilled that we were thinking about bringing the model to the Charleston area that she gave me her bylaws and training and marketing materials, everything.
“She will always be our guardian angel. We couldn’t have been up and running as fast as we [were] without tapping into her expertise.
“We served our first care receiver on Aug. 6, 2014. She was a former Rosie the Riveter, and we took her to a doctor appointment. That day, we had 11 volunteers and one care receiver. Today, we have about 160 volunteers and 420-plus care receivers we help take care of.
“It is not church oriented, per se. There are about 400 across the country. Not all of them are called Faith in Action because they don’t want that connotation. We are not affiliated with a religion, but I wanted to keep the name because I felt like I was led or called to do this. I feel I am walking my faith. My life has led me to this place.
“The first thing a lot of seniors do is give up driving. That’s often the first step to keeping them from staying at home. If you can’t get food or get to your doctor appointment, you aren’t going to be able to stay in your home very long. So transportation to medical appointments is the most popular service we offer.
“Telephone reassurance is a popular service. Isolation and loneliness is epidemic among seniors, especially in more rural settings. We match them with a volunteer. Friendships develop over time.
“We mail out an annual evaluation survey to the people we serve. I got this call from a woman who said she got this letter from Faith in Action and she didn’t know what it was. I said I thought Patty was calling her every week. She said, ‘Patty does call me every week, but she’s just my friend.’ I told her to throw that survey away because I got all the information I needed from that one comment.
“In addition to transportation and phone calls, we also do grocery shopping with or for the seniors and friendly visits. We also have the Honey Do crews program, where we do minor home repairs and maintenance. We install railings, grab bars, painting and minor things such as changing light bulbs.
“I have a vision of expanding into Jackson, Lincoln and Boone counties. I’m encouraged by the growth we’ve seen that we have tapped into a need that is real and are filling a real gap in services.
“There are great programs out there for seniors, but qualifying for them can be insurmountable for some seniors. They make too much money or live just far enough away not to qualify, or they do qualify but are put on a waiting list.
“We don’t care if you make $5 million a day or $5 a year. If you can’t get to your doctor appointment, that’s a problem, and if we can help, we will.
“We are a private nonprofit, completely funded by grants and fundraisers and individual donors.
“I believe my marketing background helped us be so successful so quickly. I could produce materials that looked professional without costing a lot. It looked like we knew what we were doing, and that goes a long way to building your credibility.
“I can point to every step in my career leading me here. It’s kind of crazy. It was all preparing me for this.
“Just last week, the Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation honored us with one of their first Change Makers to Watch awards. That was pretty huge for us. If they believe in you, you must be doing something right.”