Older adults looking to volunteer have few boundaries


Look anywhere in the nonprofit world these days and you’re likely to find an older adult volunteering his or her expertise in new ways. From the board room to the building site, organizations are putting those 50 and older to work to meet a rising demand for charitable services. In the process, members of the most experienced active generation are discovering the possibilities of giving back on their own terms.

So what’s powering the boom in older adult skilled volunteering? There’s a revolution under way in how nonprofits are asking for help, and this group is ready to make a difference during the recession.

Two million more baby boomers and close to 800,000 people 65 and older volunteered in 2008, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service—making the current crop of older adults the most socially engaged in three decades. At the same time, organizations are designing creative new roles for volunteers who have expertise. Many organizations are posting them online at VolunteerMatch.org, where more than 10,000 nonprofits have signed up since the start of the recession.

Sue Hires, 55, began volunteering at Just Friends, an adult day service in Columbus, Ind., when her mother started participating in the program. As a registered nurse, getting involved at Just Friends was a natural fit for Hires, and she thrived at helping the organization understand how to improve its operations and marketing from a participant family’s point of view.

Since then, as Hires’ interests evolved, so has her involvement. Today, she’s the organization’s green thumb, getting her hands dirty by putting her skills as a master gardener to work keeping the garden beautiful. “I guess nurturing is just kind of up my alley,” she said.

Like a lot of nonprofits, Just Friends tries to accommodate a variety of skilled contributions from its volunteers. Elizabeth Ball, a volunteer resource coordinator, says she keeps an updated list of each volunteer’s interests and regularly asks them what they may want to try. “Everybody’s needs change over time,” says Ball.

According to recent research by VolunteerMatch, older adults in particular tend to have interests that are more specific than many other demographics. Even traditional barriers to involvement, like geographic distance, can be overcome by a committed older volunteer.

For John Dits, 58, connecting with others has been a key part of his engagement on volunteer housing builds, and it has led the longtime construction contractor far from his Elko, Nev. home.

A self-professed “hands-on kind of guy,” Dits began volunteering for Habitat for Humanity and other housing groups after years of helping out on land improvement and planning issues. “I guess I started to grow a bit,” he said.

Dits has since volunteered on builds from the Gulf Coast to Costa Rica. The physical work of volunteering in construction can be draining, he said, but the satisfaction of helping to guide first-time volunteers is priceless. “A big part of the success is just making sure every one is having a positive experience. They’re always surprised by what they’re capable of,” said Dits.

As a blue collar skilled volunteer, Dits isn’t alone. Despite the popular notion that skilled volunteering happens in board rooms, the listings at VolunteerMatch.org show plenty of demand for industrial trades such as construction, plumbing, and gardening. Travel Town, for example—a museum that restores historic trains in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park—is currently looking for a cabinet maker to join its crew of mostly 50-something volunteer videographers, carpenters, track inspectors and metal workers.

According to volunteer manager Julie Foster, Travel Town’s entire restoration team consists of volunteers. Even so, she said productivity is not something the organization worries about. “I may not see these volunteers every day, but when I do see them I smile knowing that a lot will get done,” said Foster.

Greg Ramsey, 55, is a U.S. Navy track inspector and self-described fan of “big machines.” At Travel Town, he handles heavy mechanical work, track-laying, and maintenance. He also spends time working with other volunteers. Growing up in nearby Burbank, Calif., Ramsey recalls hanging around Travel Town himself and checking out the machines. Now he’s proud to be able to show young people the ropes.

“Some of these kids have never even turned a wrench,” said Ramsey. “A lot of them end up thinking, ‘You know, it’s really fun to get dirty and work with my hands.’”

Find skilled volunteer opportunities at www.volunteermatch.org.

Courtesy of ARAcontent

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