Their eyes light up when Jennifer Risper walks into the room. It’s not because she plays basketball at Vanderbilt or that they’ve seen her playing on TV, it’s because she is there to visit them.
Each day can seem much like the day that preceded it at an assisted-living home, which is what makes Risper’s visits to The Blakeford at Green Hills that much more special for the residents.
Since January, Risper, a senior on the women’s basketball team, has spent a few hours most every Monday and Wednesday, depending on the team’s schedule, brightening the lives of the residents.
When Risper started volunteering her hours, she knew she was doing something for a good cause, but she didn’t realize how large of an impact she had.
“They love it,” Risper said. “I didn’t know that they would appreciate it that much. I knew they would like it, but they love it.”
One person Risper has built a special relationship with is Martha Earthman Hudson, a Vanderbilt graduate. Since Risper began visiting, Hudson has welcomed her with open arms and usually invites Risper to eat lunch with her.
“Jennifer is so sweet for coming over and visiting,” Hudson said. “It just makes our day to see her.”
Before volunteering at The Blakeford, Risper had never spent time at a retirement home. A devout Christian, the idea to visit a retirement center came to Risper while she was reading her Bible.
“I came across a verse in James that said you need to spend your time with widows and orphans,” Risper said. “I don’t even know how I found that verse, but I did, and I was like, ’wow, that is something I need to do.’”
Risper admits that she was a little bit hesitant and nervous at first when she arrived for the first time and met Blakeford Activities Coordinator Amy Bendle, but those nerves quickly turned to joy.
“I was nervous for a second, but once I walked in that first room and started a conversation, I was fine,” said Risper, who was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year in 2009.
Bendle has witnessed firsthand how much of an impact Risper has had on everyone at the center.
“We just really enjoy having her come by, and it really brightens their day,” Bendle said. “It is just great having someone who cares so much.”
A native of Moreno Valley, Calif., Risper is unsure of what her plans will be after she graduates in May. She hopes to give basketball a shot for a few more years after being drafted by the WNBA's Chicago Sky, but no matter where she ends up, she plans to continue volunteering because she knows she is making a difference in people’s lives.
“I think (I am making a difference in their lives),” Risper said. “I especially realize it when I’ll visit with residents and their kids will come or somebody who always visits them will say, ’Oh my gosh, you made their day, you have no idea how hard today was for them.’ Moments like that make me know I’m doing the right thing.”
For as much of an impact as Risper is having on others, they are having just as much of an impact on her.
“It is not just me going out there and making their days, they are making mine, too.”