Volunteering a 'next step' for active seniors

It was a few minutes before 10 in the morning and a stifling 86 degrees on the Great Allegheny Passage. Jerry Misiewicz propped a folding lawn chair along the weed-filled hillside. It provided some semblance of shade as trucks roared up the ramp from Second Avenue to the Parkway East.

Dressed in a white golf shirt and gray shorts, Mr. Misiewicz, 67, looked trim and ready to golf a round of 18.

Instead, he pulled a clipboard out of a tote bag and began arranging paper. Mr. Misiewicz is a “counter.” Six times a year, mostly in the warmer months, he and others take two-hour shifts along the trail to register how many, and how often, people run, walk, bike, stroll or exercise their pets.

He’s a volunteer.

McCandless resident Sandy Stein, 65, retired four years ago after 31 years of teaching in special education programs in the North Allegheny School District. After 9/11, she began working with the American Red Cross, first with office work but now in deployment to help victims of disaster.

“The thing that’s nice about the Red Cross is there are a lot of opportunities for people in whatever they’re willing to do. Maybe they only want to work in an office, maybe just as deployment specialist,” Mrs. Stein said. “Pretty much any skill set you have.”

She’s a volunteer. As is Bette McDevitt, who spends some evenings in Downtown’s Theater District, ushering patrons before plays. Some of her other days are consumed with work at the Thomas Merton Center, a peace and social justice organization.

Volunteerism takes many forms, and in the case of those in retirement, it can be a fulfilling option in the years ahead. 

Mr. Misiewicz, a Bethel Park resident, on this summer day was settled into his spot near the Oakland end of the Hot Metal Bridge. He’d spotted a newspaper article a few years back that mentioned volunteers were needed to compile usage numbers and has since also manned spots near the Rankin Bridge and Perryopolis.

An accountant, he is particularly suited to the work. Mr. Misiewicz was a district manager for H&R Block, and even before his retirement, he helped AARP with its free tax services at local libraries.

“One of the most satisfying things about that is helping people get through a process that is not fun,” he said. “People can be all shook up about their taxes. You get them calmed down.”

He also has given his free time to the American Heart Association and as a youth coach in baseball, basketball and softball. Once, on vacation visiting his son, Kevin, in Florida, he helped plant sea grass in Tampa Bay. ”We had to put on boots for stingray protection!” he said.

But on this humid morning, he was making a detailed accounting. The Great Allegheny Passage has boxes at such checkpoints, where infrared sensors also count bodies as they go by. Human numbers compared to the machines’ helps keep the counts honest.

He counted not just people, but what they were doing, and in which direction they were headed: north, south, on foot, biking, walking dogs … there was even a rickshaw cyclist headed toward PNC Park for a daylight Pirates game.

As his professional career wound down, Mr. Misiewicz said, “I knew I would need to keep active. I’ve even done [cleanup] work on the Montour Trail, even though I’m not registered.”

An avid cyclist, he might bring his bike to the GAP sessions and when he’s done, go for a ride. He said people often look at him with puzzlement as he sits there, and sometimes they stop to talk.

A few months back, the Law Enforcement Torch Run for Special Olympics was a colorful distraction: police on motorcycles, lights flashing and runners with the torch, which goes from Pittsburgh to State College for charity.

Another time — and this was technically not on the trail itself, but nearby — someone was out walking a large lizard with a leash and harness. “You never know what you’re going to discover when you’re out and about,” he said.

Ms. McDevitt, 84, of the North Side, said she “quit working for money a long time ago. I figured out if I tried to live simply, I’d be OK.” At one time, she owned two travel agencies in New Castle and Pittsburgh, and she has freelanced for the Post-Gazette.

Serving as an usher at various local theaters, she said, “has been a real gift to me,” allowing her to see different productions. Her work with the Merton Center and as a member of the Raging Grannies satisfies a different part of her soul.

The Grannies, an international, nonviolent protest organization, dress like little old ladies with big, feathered hats. They sing old-fashioned songs with lyrics tweaked to satirize the situation at hand. 

“I’d seen [Grannies] perform about 25 years ago, when I was arrested for civil disobedience at a nuclear weapons site in Nevada,” Ms. McDevitt said.

“I don’t want to sound self-righteous, but in this case the cause is something you can’t turn away from. It’s not a hobby; it calls to you,” she said.

Mrs. Stein began volunteering for the Red Cross just after 9/11. Her son was attending college on a military scholarship, and she felt strongly about helping in any way she could. Eventually, the “disaster bug got me,” and she currently works in mass care — sheltering, feeding, distribution of emergency supplies — in the event of a snowstorm, flood, fire or train derailment.

Some of her assignments have been local and simple. Others have involved traveling to other parts of the country or getting up in the middle of the night. Volunteers who are retirees, Mrs. Stein said, often have the flexibility to pick up and travel on short notice.

In the summer, she tries to keep some weekends free; she’s a member of the Pittsburgh Paddlefish Dragon Boat team. But when she’s not rowing, she’s working on helping others.

“I’ve been very fortunate,” she said, “and it was time to pay back that fortune.”

Here's a sampling of volunteer opportunities

Many organizations large and small depend on volunteers to help make their world go round. Here is just a partial list of some opportunities for seniors:

•  American Red Cross

Volunteers accepted for work ranging from office duty to in-the-field disaster help. Information: 1-888-217-9599.

• Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Pittsburgh

Help mentor and serve as a role model for youth in southwestern Pennsylvania. Information: biginfo@bbbspgh.org or 412-363-6100 (Pittsburgh) or 724-228-9195 (Washington, Greene counties).

• The Carnegie Museums

The four museums — Art, Natural History, Warhol, Science Center — enlist volunteers for tasks including behind-the-scenes work with staff, helping with children’s programs and conducting surveys. Obtain an online form here.

Great Allegheny Passage

Volunteers are needed to help check the accuracy of automated counters and work on the trails, among other tasks. The 150-mile trail stretches from Cumberland, Md., to Pittsburgh for bikers, hikers and walkers. Information: email admin@GAPtrail.org.

• Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank

Volunteers can help in repack centers or distribute fresh foods. Information: email VolOps@PittsburghFoodBank.org or 412-260-3663, ext. 301.

• Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council

The Pennsylvania Department of Education requires that all volunteers have or be working toward a four-year college degree. Opportunities available in literacy, English as a Second Language or math. Information: go online or 412-393-7600. 

Training is provided to Pittsburgh-area individuals and families in a variety of programs. Information: 412-393-7600 or info@gplc.org.

• Oasis

Inter-generational tutoring opportunities and “connections” classes are offered to help others join the digital age in collaboration with the Allegheny County Library Association. 

• Phipps Conservatory

Volunteer opportunities are available in the gardens, outside and with summer camps, among others. Downloadable application available online or request a hard copy from sbertovich@phipps.conservatory.org.

• Pittsburgh Cultural Trust

Opportunities include ushering or working at festivals and events or education programs. Online form can be submitted or email volunteer@trustarts.org. Or write to Benedum Center, Att: Volunteer Office, 719 Liberty Ave., Pittsburgh 15222.

• Senior Corps of Pennsylvania

Volunteers ages 55 and older are provided with myriad opportunities to work as “foster grandparents,” mentors, builders, companions or in other roles. Information: 50 Utley Drive, Suite 500, Camp Hill, PA 17011 or 1-800-870-2616.

Maria Sciullo: msciullo@post-gazette.com or @MariaSciulloPG.


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