Walking briskly down the hall to a dimly lit office, Sarah McKinney, director of volunteer services for the Athens Community Council on Aging (ACCA), pauses momentarily to share a laugh with a co-worker before settling behind her desk to answer emails and take calls.
On the wall behind her hangs a family portrait of McKinney with John, her husband, and their kids, 5-year-old Anna and 8-year-old Nathan .
It’s a rare moment in a typical day jam-packed with meeting and training volunteers, visiting clients, and planning upcoming events.
McKinney has been an ACCA volunteer since 1999 and joined the staff in May 2001, but she knew about the challenges facing older people and their families before she ever set foot in the door.
While she was an undergraduate at Georgia State University in Atlanta, McKinney moved to suburban Tucker, to live with her grandparents.
Her grandfather had Alzheimer’s disease, and McKinney and her grandmother cared for him at home as long as they could.
After several falls and wandering episodes, they realized he would be better off in an assisted living facility.
But they weren’t always happy with how her grandfather was treated and how the staff dealt with family.
“I remember very vividly visiting him regularly, having lunch with him, and needing to insert some type of dignity in the end stages of his life,” said McKinney.
“I remember feeling as though we weren’t being heard as a family and weren’t being listened to,” said McKinney and “that is exactly the moment I meant to become a social worker.”
She switched her major from education to social work and began preparing for the career she now has.
One of her newest duties is working with medical students enrolled at the Georgia Health Sciences University-University of Georgia Medical Partnership, a campus now in its second year of operation. ACCA, along with several local clinics and two hospitals in Athens, collaborates with the new school to give future doctors first-hand experience with patients.
McKinney says this can help students learn how to understand the needs of different populations they will serve once they’re practicing medicine.
“Older adults aren’t the only community need, but they’re a very important part of who we are as a community,” said McKinney.“ I tell them [medical students] the first thing you need to do is understand the context of the community you serve.”
“That way when they’re sitting on your patient table, or under your knife, or when you’re writing their prescription you may see them as more of an individual,” said McKinney.
“We’re all individuals,” said McKinney. “When we quit treating the individual, we quit treating the problem.”
McKinney’s energy and charisma rubs off on volunteers, said Jennie Deese, President/CEO at the ACCA.
“She get’s them really excited and engaged about what she’s doing,” said Deese.
“I want to do a good job,” said McKinney. “There’s a real incessant need inside of me to see good works being done.”
McKinney’s career has provided her with plenty of good memories and a few so difficult that they are “burned in my mind.”
“I remember sitting in a double wide trailer, down in Greene County, that had no windows, feral cats living in there, roaches, and old food and an elderly couple that had been married for years and all they knew was a small farming trade,” said McKinney.
“Here they were ending their life in filth…you hope and pray you never have to live in anything like that.”
McKinney is determined that ACCA’s clients, who come there for day programs and activities, won’t end up like that either.
“She’s an advocate,” said Heather Sweaney, who manages the agency’s Meals-on-Wheels program.
“We at ACCA, we advocate for everybody, but Sarah advocates for us as her employees and co-workers,” said Sweaney.
“I always say going to work at the Council on Aging is like going to church because you know you’re doing something that makes a direct impact on the community, for the better of the community, day in and day out,” said McKinney.