Drawn together through the SEARCH program

Although Joe Query and Paloma “Pomie” Costell may be more than three decades apart in age, when they are together, the years melt away. While they have only known each other for a little over a year and only meet once every other week, when they see each other, the conversation and laughter flow freely, with occasional hugs mixed in.

“It’s a spark in my life,” says Pomie. “I think we make each other laugh. We have a good time.”

“It’s a beautiful relationship,” says Joe.

Joe and Pomie met in December 2022 through Catholic Charities Maine’s Seek Elderly Alone, Renew Courage and Hope (SEARCH).  The program connects volunteers with isolated seniors aged 60 or over who still live in their own homes, with the goal of keeping them as independent as possible for as long as possible.

“It’s a wonderful, wonderful program. I have been managing the program for 15 years now, and we’re all so proud of making a difference in the lives of our elderly population,” says Wendy Russell, Volunteer & Aging Services director for Catholic Charities Maine. “Many of the seniors have been in our program for multiple years, and they have been matched for as many as 5, 10, or 15 years. What that shows is that the program is successfully supporting seniors so that they have been able to stay in their homes longer and have not had to go to assisted living or whatever.”

The volunteers provide companionship and help with transportation, taking clients grocery shopping, to run errands, or for medical appointments.

At age 92, Joe no longer drives, so he and Pomie go to the grocery store together every two weeks.

“It is a big help because I don’t have transportation anymore,” says Joe.

“I hold on to him in the parking lot when it’s windy because the wind could just take him away from me at any minute,” says Pomie.

“I’m a little wobbly,” adds Joe.

While having someone to help him with groceries has been valuable to Joe, what has been an even greater gift is the friendship that has blossomed between them.

“Not only has he become a dear friend, but he has become a friend of the family. We get together for tea,” says Pomie.

“It’s brought some life into my life,” says Joe. “She is my family now.”

Before a volunteer is paired with a senior, Catholic Charities’ staff members spend time learning a little bit about them to try to find just the right fit.

“What are the clients’ needs and their likes and dislikes? And then we learn from our volunteers the same things. What are their likes and dislikes? What do they want to help a senior with? And so, when we make that initial match, we really hope that the match will stay together for multiple years, and I want to say that 95% of them do. It’s just really great to see that happen,” says Wendy.

What made Joe and Pomie such a good fit for each other is the fact that they are both gifted artists. Pomie says she had just finished with a previous client and wasn’t anticipating being immediately paired with another, but when she heard about Joe, she didn’t hesitate.

“I said, ‘OK, let’s do it.’”

“There are no accidents. I believe that strongly,” says Joe.

Joe is a talented sculptor and artist, as evidenced by the many pieces that fill his Augusta apartment. Among his favorites is a bust of St. Francis of Assisi, from whom he says he has drawn inspiration through the years.

“I have always been interested in the contemplative life, and St. Francis is certainly one of the highest examples of living in poverty and working. That was an ideal while I was growing up, so it had a large effect on my thinking,” he says.

One of Joe’s most well-known pieces stands at the edge of the Bowdoin College campus in Brunswick. He is the sculptor who created the eight-foot bronze statue of Joshua Chamberlain that is located across the street from the home where Chamberlain lived.

“It’s like an old friend because I worked three years on that project,” he says.

Pomie is a third-generation artist.

“I grew up with art surrounding me: my grandparents, my dad, and me going to art receptions and gallery openings,” she says.

Pomie worked for many years as a graphic artist before deciding to pursue fine art, including painting and sketching. She says she began with watercolors and then moved on to pastels and oils. She and her sister, Sabrina, now have a gallery together, Costell and Costell, in Gardiner.

“We have our studio space in the back of the gallery, so when we’re there, we feed off each other’s energy and critique each other, and then we have Joe come for tea, and we talk more about art,” says Pomie.

“It’s meeting a fellow artist who understands what you are doing. We can share around that, and that’s important,” says Joe. “We can talk on the same level. There is a connection there.”

With an extensive background in art, which included studying in Boston, Massachusetts; Carrara, Italy, where he learned to sculpt marble; and California; along with the years he spent as a teacher himself, Joe has a lot to share.

“Once a teacher, always a teacher, so he teaches,” says Pomie. “He passes on this incredible information and experience.”

“It has been wonderful being able to share things about my old professor and some of the experiences that have taken place in my life,” he says.

“He reminds me to let things go and relax about what I’m working on, that it will come through. It will come through. I think about our conversations, and something will just remind me that, ‘OK, yes, it’s going to come. This is how Joe works,’” says Pomie.

Joe says there were times in his life when he wished there was someone special with whom he could share things, and now he has found that with Pomie.

“I haven’t been able to do my work for a while, and I got depressed for a long period when I realized that I couldn’t do it anymore. Physically, I think I could have done it somewhere, but I lost the [mental] connection. I still miss it, but I accept that at this point, and now, this has just made a difference,” he says. “You woke me up again.”

Joe says he has learned things from Pomie, too, including her use of multiple layers of paint and colors and the contrast between her work, which is realistic, and her sister’s, which is abstract.

“Through her work, I got to see things a little differently, and seeing her sister’s work, that helped me to see the contrast between the two of you, and that has been wonderful,” Joe says. “It’s a wonderful exchange. We all learn from each other. It’s amazing.”

The pair also shares art books, and Joe has given Pomie some of his classical music albums, which she and her sister play in their gallery.

“It’s perfect studio music,” says Pomie. “We’ve gotten so many compliments on the music that we play.”

“Really? That’s wonderful,” says Joe. “It’s because it’s not distracting.”

Pomie is one of nearly 200 volunteers in the SEARCH program, which serves between 200 to 225 clients. When the program started, it only served Androscoggin County and part of Sagadahoc County, but it has now expanded into Kennebec and Somerset counties, as well as parts of Franklin, Oxford, Lincoln, and Penobscot counties, plus Brunswick and Harpswell in Cumberland County.

“Even though we’re only covering certain areas in some counties, at least we are there,” Wendy says. “And we are in some of the areas that have a greater need. For instance, in Oxford County, we are in the Rumford, Dixfield, Peru, Mexico area, which is a high-need area and low-income.”

Wendy says they would love to expand further, but it would mean more staff hours. The program receives no government funding. It relies on money from the Catholic Appeal, grants or foundation funding, and support from the United Way, with which it partners in many of the counties where it serves.

“Some of our sites that we do are just partial areas, like Franklin, Oxford, Lincoln, and Penobscot counties. We only have part-time staff that manage those sites, so we’ll serve fewer clients because of that. But there is a need, so we try to do the best we can, and then, as we get more money, we can grow staff hours,” Wendy says.

The other great need is for volunteers. There are many seniors on a waiting list for services.

“We are looking for volunteers in all the sites that we cover,” says Wendy.

Wendy says SEARCH is a good fit for people who only want to volunteer a few hours a week. Plus, they get to determine their own hours.

“It’s such a wonderful way to give back to a neighbor or a community member by just doing this a few hours a week, and you’re one-on-one with a senior, so you can kind of come up with your own schedule,” she says. “We do ask our volunteers to try to do three to four hours a week with a senior. Some might do a little less or do it every other week, or some might do many more hours with a senior. It all depends on the time the volunteer can give.”

Pomie, who used to work as a graphic artist for Catholic Charities Maine, says it was an awareness of that need that first led her to volunteer.

“I felt the need. I saw the need all the time, where we were always looking for volunteers, and there just weren’t enough out there. And from all the interviews done with past volunteers, I could see it was so rewarding for everyone,” she says.

“What we hear from our volunteers all the time is that they feel like they are getting so much more back than what they are giving, and the clients are just so appreciative for the special bonds that happen with the volunteers and the support they receive,” says Wendy.

Pomie and Joe couldn’t agree more.

“It really has been rewarding. I’ve made a friend whom I never would have met otherwise,” says Pomie.

“Same here,” says Joe. “It’s wonderful.”