Giving Back

by Depend Team Mar 21 2009 9:50PM

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By Bob Cooper

When Julia Ruiz retired from her position as a teaching assistant in Chicago’s public schools in 2001, she moved to Florida. Her five grown children were beginning to produce grandchildren, but the Puerto Rico native still had too much time on her hands. "I wondered, ‘What will I do now?’" she remembers. About a year later, she saw a TV ad for a volunteer-matching center and called the number.

Ruiz, 72, now spends four mornings a week in a second-grade classroom in Deerfield Beach, where she lives, doing many of the same things she enjoyed in her full-time job. "I help the kids with reading and math, especially the Spanish-speaking kids because I’m bilingual," she says. "It makes me feel I’m still doing something important." Her experience reflects a nationwide trend of people, and retired people in particular, who are seeking volunteer work in their communities that capitalize on their skills or expertise.

"Baby Boomers are the best-educated generation in history," notes Robert Grimm, Jr., director of research and policy development for Senior Corps, "and as they approach retirement, they’re searching for ways to advance their skills and interests through volunteering. That’s a positive trend, because research shows that volunteers who use professional skills are more likely to continue volunteering. And because volunteering helps older adults stay active and healthy, Boomer volunteers are benefitting themselves as well as others with their commitment to service."

Studies of volunteers have found that they’re not only happier, but healthier: they live longer, have lower rates of depression and live fuller lives than non-volunteers. Older adults have the most to gain from volunteering, as it provides them with physical activity, social interaction and a sense of purpose at an important time in their lives. About a quarter of Americans of all ages, do some volunteering.

How can you join the legions of happy, healthy volunteers? The first thing to keep in mind is that, unlike a paid job, you’ll be doing this for the love of giving rather than to earn a living. If you enjoyed your former (or current) career, find a position that matches that skill set: volunteer at a school if you have a background in education, a hospital if healthcare is your field, or an environmental organization if you have a science background. But you may instead want to indulge your passion for your avocation rather than your vocation. For example, be an art museum docent if you want to share your enthusiasm for the arts or a choir director if music and religion are strong interests.

"Before searching for a volunteer opportunity, think about what you care about and what you like to do," suggests Jessica Rosenberg, who matches volunteers with positions for HandsOn Twin Cities, a Minneapolis, Minnesota-based organization that links volunteers with opportunities. "Do you prefer to work alone or in groups? Inside or outside? With adults or kids? Volunteers who truly enjoy and care about what they’re doing will get more out of the experience and stick with it longer."

You needn’t jump in headfirst. Many volunteers only work two hours a week, a level that’s been shown to provide as much of a boost to health and happiness as volunteering for longer hours. And if you don’t like the first volunteer position you try, sample others until you find a good fit. You’re the boss.

"In America there’s a notion that the older years are a time for retreat and withdrawal after a life of creativity and accomplishment," says Ken Dychtwald, Ph.D., author of [i]With Purpose: Going From Success to Significance in Work and Life[/i] (2009). "But people who step to the sidelines and pull out of an active life tend to experience sadness and disorientation, while those who stay engaged – driven by a desire to make a contribution – are statistically happier and healthier. When we reach an age when we have more knowledge and experience than ever, there’s a hunger to do something meaningful, to turn more toward legacy than leisure."

Local and national volunteer matching organizations make it easier than ever to help you find a volunteer opening. Senior Corps offers a variety of programs, including:

  • The Foster Grandparents program, connecting seniors with special-needs children
  • The Senior Companion program, pairing volunteers with fellow senior adults
  • The RSVP program, offering a range of opportunities with thousands and local and national organizations

The USA Freedom Corps, VolunteerMatch, United Way and the AARP also offer nationwide volunteer matching, as do volunteer centers and senior centers in many communities.

It was a TV commercial for a senior’s volunteer agency that prompted Julia Ruiz to find her dream volunteer assignment with second graders. "I love the kids and it keeps me active," she says. "It may be the best thing I ever did."

Do you have experiences giving back to your community? Share them on our discussion boards!

Sources:
[i]Robert Grimm, Director, Office of Research and Policy Development, Senior Corps (www.SeniorCorps.gov)
Jessica Rosenberg, Service Learning Coordinator, Hands On Twin Cities- Minneapolis, Minnesota
Ken Dychtwald, Ph.D., author of With Purpose: Going From Success to Significance in Work and Life (2009) via Robyn Hamilton, Chief Administrative Office[/i]

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