Gray area: Senior volunteers fuel local nonprofits

SENIOR MOMENT: Reading coach Ken Lenington with his Read to Succeed student at Vance Elementary. Photo by Kelsey Wayne

A great gray army is at work throughout Buncombe County: retired people donating their time to groups of every stripe. At just about any nonprofit that relies on volunteer labor, the predominant hair color is likely to range from white to silver to steel. This unpaid workforce brings with it a wide variety of life experiences, but its members have remarkably similar goals: to forge connections and make this community a better place, finding meaning through giving back.

According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, an estimated one in four Americans volunteers. In the Asheville area, the rate is even higher: Almost 30 percent of the population reported volunteer service in 2014, census data shows. Local volunteer coordinators say retirees account for at least half their unpaid helpers, adding that these folks’ flexible schedules and deep desire to serve make them particularly consistent and reliable team members. And while hard numbers aren’t easy to come by, it seems likely that upward of 10,000 retired or semiretired Asheville residents are actively engaged in volunteer work.

Michelle Bennett directs the United Way’s Hands On Asheville-Buncombe program, which matches volunteers with groups needing assistance. Retirees, she says, “fill a lot of needs and support roles in the community.” Without their efforts, “A lot of students and families and neighbors would be hurting.”

If MANNA FoodBank’s retired volunteers suddenly failed to show up for a week or two, for example, the nonprofit would be able to help only a fraction of those it feeds through programs like MANNA Packs for Kids and local food pantries, notes volunteer manager Maxwell Gruber. “Without our senior volunteers, the reach we currently have would be greatly diminished.”

And at Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity, at least 80 percent of the 283 core volunteers (those contributing more than 100 hours of service per year) are over 55. Stephanie Wallace, who coordinates construction volunteers, says the average age of her core group is nearly 70.

The net effect of their efforts is substantial: Last year, Habitat’s core volunteers contributed more than 41,000 hours with a dollar value of almost $1 million, says Wallace. “But more importantly,” she notes, “they have a huge impact on the lives of the people we serve. Their volunteer work means our houses are built with care and are affordable for our families.”

Point of entry

From its location on the UNC Asheville campus, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute gives newly arriving seniors tools to help them quickly get to know and engage with their adopted home. About 90 percent of the organization’s 2,300 members have moved here from other parts of the country, says Executive Director Catherine Frank. “What we provide, in part, is entree into community,” she explains. “Our members come to us looking for learning, engagement and friendship.”

The nine-week Leadership Asheville Seniors program is a popular introduction to local history, culture, issues, organizations and leaders. Many participants, says Frank, “find a connection with a site we’ve visited or a nonprofit we’ve learned about.” That often leads to a deeper relationship: Over 65 percent of OLLI members report volunteering at least five hours a month.

Retiree Sarah Reincke, who chairs the institute’s Civic Engagement Committee, says she sees the group’s role as “homing in on the kinds of volunteering opportunities we know will resonate with our members.” A recent survey found that OLLI members volunteer with over 100 local organizations. Analyzing the list, says Reincke, has revealed that her cohort is especially drawn to organizations working on education and food security.

Selfish reasons

Reincke also echoes what other retirees have pointed out as well: Senior volunteers’ motives are by no means completely selfless. Volunteering, says Reincke, offers a multitude of rewards. Realizing that they’re still productive members of the community raises seniors’ self-esteem, and connecting with others is an antidote to isolation, boosting both mental and physical health.

For her part, Reincke says she particularly values the intergenerational acquaintances she makes through her work at Asheville Middle School and as a docent at the Asheville Art Museum. “At every stage of life, those relationships are elusive. When you’re mom, everybody you know is a mom. When you retire, everybody you know is retired,” she reflects. “Especially in retirement, we need to connect with people of different ages and races to keep our perspectives wide and open.”

HEAVY LIFTING: Habitat for Humanity core volunteers Tom Berner and David Langdon lay block for a foundation. Photo by Greta Bush
HEAVY LIFTING: Habitat for Humanity core volunteers Tom Berner and David Langdon lay block for a retaining wall. Photo by Greta Bush

Wallace recalls a recent conversation with a retired volunteer who said Habitat was “playing an important role in his aging process. We allow him to acquire new skills under supportive supervision. We keep his mind engaged and his body active. What better way to grow old than in the company of really good people while still working to make a difference?”

But what about the physical demands of a construction site? “For the most part, volunteers know when to age themselves off roofs, then ladders and maybe eventually into the ReStore,” she explains. “And if they don’t do it themselves, their wives will call!”

Tackling the achievement gap

Pat Bastian, the administrator for Read to Succeed, reports that “easily 95 percent” of the organization’s volunteer coaches and buddies are 55 or older. Coaches make a substantial time commitment, pledging to work with one student twice a week from kindergarten or first grade through third grade. Reading buddies, on the other hand, commit to working with a student once a week throughout a single school year. Volunteers must also learn phonics-based, multisensory teaching methods.

And though they come from diverse backgrounds, Bastian says the common thread is a desire to improve the futures of children from low-literacy homes, who are already behind their peers when they enter kindergarten. “Most volunteers are troubled by the achievement gap among Asheville students and have made a commitment to change that,” she observes.

The program generates impressive results: Over the 2014-15 school year, 60 percent of Read to Succeed students reached grade level in reading. Participating classroom teachers said that three-quarters of Read to Succeed students improved throughout the year across four measures of attitude and behavior. And, stresses Bastian, “They all say they need more reading coaches.”

The nonprofit, she notes, hosts well-attended social events for its volunteers, who enjoy getting to know like-minded literacy advocates. “It’s wonderful to hear the coaches talk about their students. If you didn’t know better, you’d think they were talking about their own children.”

Helping the helpers

Many well-heeled local retirees give back from a position of privilege, but all segments of society can and do contribute to the broader community, says Ann Whisenhunt, who manages the Land of Sky Regional Council’s Senior Companion Program. Senior volunteers with limited incomes receive a small stipend in exchange for helping the homebound elderly with things like preparing meals, visiting the doctor or shopping. The 39 senior companions currently serving in Buncombe County volunteer between 15 and 40 hours per week, enabling the people they assist to continue living independently in their own homes.

Volunteers must earn no more than 200 percent of the federal poverty level (about $24,000 per year). They’re paid $2.65 per hour, which isn’t counted as income for the purpose of determining their own eligibility for services or housing subsidies.

Land of Sky also administers the Foster Grandparent Program, which places low-income seniors in schools and child care facilities to work one on one with at-risk or special-needs children. Last year, 68 foster grandparents served in Buncombe County, says program manager Stacy Friesland. Five of them worked with children with developmental disabilities at the Irene Wortham Center in South Asheville.

Foster grandparents provide an extra adult presence in the lives of kids with significant needs. The seniors are never alone with the children and don’t count toward state-mandated supervision ratios. Like senior companions, foster grandparents earn a stipend for their work and must meet income requirements.

Sound advice

At the Buncombe County Council on Aging, volunteer peer counselors work alongside paid staff, advising other seniors about their eligibility for programs that can lower their monthly prescription drug costs. The 21 Seniors’ Health Insurance Information Program volunteers must complete over 20 hours of online training to obtain certification. They’re then expected to provide at least 40 hours of service during the year.

In 2015, the program saved Buncombe and Henderson County seniors over $483,120, says John Wingerter, the director of insurance services. The busiest time of year, he continues, is Medicare’s annual election period: Oct. 15 through Dec. 7. Last year, SHIIP counselors assisted over 800 clients during that period.

But requests for advice aren’t limited to those months. Nationwide, over 10,000 people a day turn 65, triggering their Medicare eligibility. “Some days,” says Wingerter, “with the phone ringing off the hook, it feels like all 10,000 are in Buncombe County.” His office also helps consumers choose a health insurance plan under the Affordable Care Act.

Other Council on Aging volunteers provide transportation, do minor home repairs and deliver food to homebound recipients, says Executive Director Wendy Marsh.

Super seniors

In an average week, about 500 people volunteer at MANNA FoodBank. About half are seniors who, as regulars, “know what to do and how to do it,” making their contributions especially efficient and effective, says Gruber, the organization’s volunteer manager. “We are part of their routine,” he notes, adding that it’s “not a stretch to say that retirees make MANNA run on a weekly basis.”

PACKING A PUNCH: Volunteers from Givens Estates label bags for MANNA's bulk repackaging program. Photo courtesy of MANNA FoodBank
PACKING A PUNCH: Volunteers from Givens Estates label bags for MANNA’s bulk repackaging program. Photo courtesy of MANNA FoodBank

And though volunteering in the warehouse can be physically demanding, a surprising number of older volunteers say it helps keep them fit. “I have one weekly volunteer who’s 95, which tells you a lot about the benefits of retiring actively,” says Gruber.

In addition, retirees’ flexible schedules mean “they’re able to fit into the needs that we have,” he explains. “People who are working, or students, have more rigid schedules that we have to work around.” One program, which involves driving trucks to pick up and deliver food on short notice, “definitely wouldn’t exist without our retired volunteers,” he reports. “I can put out a call online for a delivery on 24- or 48-hour notice, and I almost always get someone to fill that shift.”

Besides tackling warehouse tasks, seniors also work in MANNA’s offices and serve on the organization’s board of directors.

Changing needs

The face of retirement is changing. Today’s retirees are often in good health, and many can expect to live another 20 to 30 years.

“At no point in a person’s life do we remain unchanged over a period of 30 years,” notes Frank, the director of OLLI. And retirees’ volunteer commitments may reflect those changes.

“Sometimes people will serve on a board for a while and then realize that they want to do something more routine that gives them a different kind of feeling of accomplishment,” she explains. After many years of working in executive positions, she recalls, one OLLI member told her, “I just want to drive the truck.”

And in an organization where hundreds of volunteers supplement the work of eight paid staff, says Frank, “People can give at so many different levels, from teaching a course to welcoming new members at a social event, and everybody is valued for what they bring.”

Whisenhunt, too, sees many changes in the pool of volunteers she manages, compared with previous generations. Often, she points out, baby boomers are “still working after age 65, they are traveling a lot, and they may be taking care of elderly parents or grandchildren.” With so much on their plates, the “level of commitment is different” when it comes to things like taking on a regular volunteer shift.

Meanwhile, says Whisenhunt, a 30-year veteran in the field of volunteer management, community needs continue to grow, so adapting to the needs of today’s senior volunteers is well worth the effort. Without retirees, she concludes, “I think we would see a catastrophe in Asheville. There is no way to overstate the value of what these folks are giving back to the community, in terms of their time and experience.”

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About Virginia Daffron
Managing editor, lover of mountains, native of WNC. Follow me @virginiadaffron

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