Retired and Senior Volunteer Program workers never too old to lend a hand
February 21, 2013 5:00 AM
Retired volunteer John Cokley passes collected trash to Joseph Divack of Allegheny CleanWays as RSVP volunteers pick up litter above Steuben Street in the West End section of Pittsburgh.
Jim Carr of Shaler, a retired phone company technician, checks and fixes blood pressure monitors in a back room of Global Links in Garfield. Mr. Carr volunteers at Global Links four to six hours a week.
Retired volunteer John Cokley picks up litter on a hillside above Steuben Street in Pittsburgh?s West End.
Sharon Deacon, left, and Susie Williams, both of the International Women's Association of Pittsburgh, sort through medical supplies at Global Links in Garfield.
By Annie Siebert Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
One morning after Joseph Divack retired from his career as a social worker, he told his wife he was tired of seeing Pittsburgh hillsides littered with trash and debris.
So, "without giving it any thought or planning at all," he said, he decided to fix it.
"I'm just going to go start to clean it up by myself," he told his wife.
He started in a wooded area near a cemetery in Sheraden where some of his family members are buried. Broken toilets, water heaters, car batteries and tires were visible from the cemetery, he said.
"When you're thinking about your departed relatives, you shouldn't be looking at broken toilets," he said, calling the litter "tremendously disrespectful."
It took him three weeks to clean up the site in Sheraden. After that, he just kept going.
"I started doing this cleaning-up-dump-sites thing on my own after I retired," he said. "I just did it as a lone ranger."
Mr. Divack, 68, of Squirrel Hill, is just one example of how seniors and retirees can find fulfilling work after their careers have ended and the nest is empty.
And now, Pittsburgh Cares, which matches volunteers with nonprofit organizations, is making it easier for seniors to help their communities by restarting the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program, part of the federally funded SeniorCorps program.
"What RSVP aims to do is what Pittsburgh Cares is already doing," matching volunteers with nonprofits, said Riley Baker, RSVP manager.
Pittsburgh Cares restarted RSVP, which launched nationally in 1971, in October. Previously, the Red Cross had managed the program in Pittsburgh.
Mr. Baker said Pittsburgh Cares is looking for people who have ended their professional careers but still want to put the skills they learned over a lifetime of working to good use.
Ideally, senior volunteers will be placed in positions that suit their expertise, whether that is administrative skills, human resources experience or computer savviness. But Mr. Baker noted nonprofits need more than professionals - someone who had a career as a bartender, for example, could help a nonprofit plan a fundraising event or gala.
Seniors will get a sense of affiliation from working with like-minded, civically oriented people toward a similar goal, Mr. Baker said, and part of the program is to connect RSVP volunteers with each other during recognition events, such as luncheons and sporting events. Seniors also will receive a federally funded supplemental life insurance program for as long as they're volunteering with the program.
"An RSVP volunteer can expect to be part of an organization that's over 100,000 volunteers strong all across the country," Mr. Baker said.
Opportunities for all
Mr. Divack eventually partnered with the Clean Pittsburgh Commission and Allegheny CleanWays to create a more coordinated effort for cleaning up dump sites. He volunteered with Allegheny CleanWays for two years before accepting a paid gig as the coordinator of its DumpBusters program. He's also vice chairman of the Clean Pittsburgh Commission.
On average, volunteers for DumpBusters work 12 months a year, six days a week, six hours a day. Mr. Divack said the volunteers are mostly working on steep slopes, but everyone is trained to do the work safely.
"We work smart," he said. "It's not about being the size of a Steeler. It's about working smart and figuring out how to remove the debris [safely]."
If lugging trash up a hillside seems too extreme, there are plenty of less taxing indoor opportunities for senior volunteers.
Women of all ages were crowded into Global Links' Garfield warehouse one day last week, working swiftly to sort surplus medical supplies and check expiration dates.
Global Links collects surplus medical equipment that's not expired or used but would end up in a landfill, and it ships it to partners in Latin America and the Caribbean, volunteer manager Stacy Bodow said.
Ninety percent of the surplus equipment is sorted and packed by volunteers, she said. In 2011, the organization packed and shipped 263 tons of supplies, she said.
Ms. Bodow said the majority of Global Links volunteers are college students, but the regular volunteers, some of whom have been volunteering weekly for years, are mostly seniors.
One is Margie Ward, 72, of Shadyside. She's been volunteering for Global Links since 1994, after she retired from a career as a secretary at West Penn Hospital.
One day a week, she volunteers from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., packing boxes, checking expiration dates, filing and managing packing slips.
"I feel it's for a good cause," she said, "and the people here are very friendly. You feel like a family."
Ms. Ward's name and photo were featured on a board of volunteers in Global Links' offices in recognition of her accomplishment: 2,400 volunteer hours for the organization.
Another longtime Global Links volunteer is Jim Carr, 71, of Shaler.
Mr. Carr has been volunteering with the organization since 2005 and is now in charge of ensuring blood pressure equipment is functioning properly. When the volunteer who used to fix the blood pressure equipment moved to Florida, Mr. Carr, a retired computer technician who worked for Bell Telephone Co., took over the task.
Last week, he sat in a chilly room and weeded through gauges, cords and cuffs and ensured the gauges indicated the correct pressure. After he makes sure everything is in working order, he assembles the necessary parts and sends them off to be packed for shipment.
He said he started volunteering because he didn't have much to do after he retired in 2003. He would see his wife, who is younger, off to work, he said, and was left with nothing to do. He now volunteers for Global Links four to six hours a week.
A generation of expertise
Mr. Baker said nonprofits will benefit from the pool of skilled, mature volunteers that have time they're looking to fill during weekday mornings and afternoons. Seniors will benefit from having a "second life" in volunteerism, he said.
Mr. Baker said much of the narrative surrounding the aging Baby Boomer generation is about the burden they could be on the Social Security system. But what people fail to realize, he said, is that an entire generation with a professional set of skills doesn't want to "adhere to some of the old structures about what one does when one retires."
Mr. Divack agreed.
"People who are in the older quartile of life can be extraordinarily effective in volunteer efforts, even in doing physical stuff," he said, noting that today's senior citizens are healthier, stronger and more active than the seniors of, say, the 1950s, when senior volunteers might be tasked with reading to young children or doing other largely sedentary tasks.
"I guess I wouldn't want to be my age in the 1950s and be relegated to stacking library books," Mr. Divack said.