Seniors put skills to work by volunteering

Seniors are repositories of history, schooled from years of experience in work and life. But retired from the job market, they often lack an outlet for their skills.

The retired and Senior Volunteer program, known as RSVP, is a program that places seniors in volunteer positions throughout the community. RSVP has three offices – in Boulder, Longmont and lafayette – and currently has 1,000 active volunteers ages 55-years and up from Boulder and Broomfield counties.

According to Maureen Ewing, executive director for RSVP, volunteers worked 170,000 hours last year at more than 200 nonprofit origanizations including the Humane Society of Boulder Valley, in area hospitals and police stations.

In addition, RSVP provides free safety-net programs in which seniors provide help for other seniors. “The goal is to keep seniors and adults with disabilities independent for as long as possible,” Ewing said.

Carry-Out Caravan is one of these programs. Volunteers take grocery orders, shop and deliver groceries for people who are unable.The program partners with Albertson’s Inc., and is offered to people in Longmont, Boulder, Louisville, Lafayette, Erie, Superior and Lyons. Each week 90 volunteers help more than 300 with grocery shopping. From 2003 to 2004, Ewing said the program had an 84 percent increase in orders.

RSVP volunteer Dorothy Field, age 78, works Monday through Thursday each week. She volunteers for Carry-Out Caravan, the Humane Society Thrift Shop and at the help desk of both Emergency Family Assistance Association and RSVP.

“Volunteering is good for us seniors,” Field said. “Volunteering keeps us busy and not worrying about ourselves and other things.” She also enjoys the social aspect, meeting and spending time with other like-minded people.

“At this age nobody wants you for a job,” she said. “This way we can get out and work like having a job.” Laughing she added, “The paycheck is not really enough,” since volunteers, of course work for free. But their donated time is of considerable value. In 2004, the estimated value of volunteer time is $17.55 per hour, according to the Independent Sector, a leadership forum for charities, foundations and corporate-giving programs. If RSVP’s volunteers were paid it would cost almost $3 million each year.

“We work with people’s skills, interest and availability,” Ewing said. “The senior volunteers commit to what they want to do from a one-time event to 40 hours a week.”

Herb Harris Jr., age 81, worked for IBM in Boulder as an in-house computer programmer for more than 24 years. He now helps manage and update the Web site for the Volunteer Connection of Boulder County. He constructs a Web site profile page each week featuring one Longmont and one Boulder resident.

“I get a hold of the information on the person, family or a group of people and format it to the Web site along with a photo,” Harris said. “I have been volunteering for a long time, and when I found this opportunity it appealed to me because I could put to use some of my computer skills and work from home.”

Harris volunteers approximately 25 hours a month and also helps with information signs at Frazier Meadows in Boulder as well as the Boulder and Broomfield counties Community Food Share program.

Another RSVP safety-net service is the Handyman Fix-It Program in which seniors install grab bars, smoke alarms, as well as fix faucets, lamps, hang mirrors, pictures and perform other useful tasks. Another more training-intensive program is the Companionship Service in which RSVP trains volunteers to visit housebound seniors and make daily phone calls to check in.

Eleanor Hoffman, age 88, volunteers with Habitat For Humanity, RSVP and other community seervice centers. She said the best part about retirement is, “Nobody tells you what to do.”

“I love to volunteer,” she said. “It makes me feel good about myself, and I get to meet people. It is my way to give back to the community.”

Many senior volunteers share their specializied skills. Jean Barker, age 75, was a social worker before she retired. She has volunteered at Voices For Children as a child advocate for 18 years, counseling and working with children who are going through foster placement or other difficult situations.

“Children need lots of encouragement.” she said. “I would play and talk with them. You feel as though you can make a difference.”

Barker said social agencies have difficulties keeping close tabs on each child. Her work was to coordinate information with the children’s schools and foster parents. Another of her favorite volunteer activities is to do at-home visits with seniors.

“I get more out of volunteering than I put into it,” Barker said. “It’s a good feeling of accomplishment and contributing to the community.”

Laura Kinder, executive director of the Volunteer Connection of Boulder County, said seniors are able to contribute in ways other age groups cannot. She feels fortunate to work with seniors.

“Every retiree volunteer is individual,” Kinder said. “They bring a level of maturity and knowledge to the workplace that can be applied to any agency, program or service.”

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