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Unleashing the Potential of Older Volunteers

By Sam Schuth, MN State Offce Director, Corporation for National and Community Service

Throughout the decades, baby boomers have changed our country. We have influenced national policy, left
our mark on pop culture, and changed our workplaces and families for the better. We are still active. We are still engaged. And now we have a great opportunity to expand our impact in a new way.

Through service, boomers can be a positive influence on young lives, help older individuals live independently in their own homes, preserve the environment, offer our professional skills to local nonprofit groups, and lend our talents and experience to strengthen our communities in countless other ways.

America’s 77 million baby boomers are a resource of extraordinary proportions. We are the largest, healthiest, best educated generation in history, and we can leave an incredible legacy through service to others. We bring a lifetime of skills and experience that we can channel into tackling some of our toughest problems: poverty, illiteracy, the high cost of health care, and keeping individuals living independently as they age.

As the Minnesota director of the Corporation for National and Community Service, I am constantly in awe of the power of older Americans to get things done for their communities.

More than 19,500 seniors in Minnesota contribute their time and talents in one of the three Senior Corps programs. Foster Grandparents serve one-on-one as tutors and mentors to more than 7,400 young people who have special needs. Senior Companions help more than 2,290 homebound seniors and other adults maintain independence in their own homes. RSVP conducts safety patrols for local police departments, participate in environmental projects, tutor and mentor youth, respond to natural disasters, and provide other services through more than 5,700 groups across Minnesota.

In Minnesota and across the nation, the Corporation for National and Community Service is working to expand service opportunities for baby boomers and to focus their service on pressing social problems.

The Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which President Obama signed one year ago, made several changes to expand service opportunities for baby boomers. One of those changes was to lower the minimum age for service as either a Senior Companion or a Foster Grandparent from age 60 to age 55.

In Stillwater, 59-year-old Judy Jordan recently began her service as a Senior Companion. Judy had served during the previous two years as a part-time AmeriCorps member providing respite services for caregivers. Thanks to the change in the law, she became eligible to serve as a Senior Companion and will continue to see her clients without interruption. And as the economy has taken a toll on her household’s income, the stipend that Judy receives has become an important supplement.

The Serve America Act also has made AmeriCorps more friendly to baby boomers by setting a goal that individuals age 55 and over will fill at least 10 percent of positions at AmeriCorps and by allowing AmeriCorps members aged 55 and over the option of transferring the educational award that they earn at the end of their service to a child or grandchild.

Recently, the Metropolitan Area Agency on Aging (MAAA) received a planning grant from AmeriCorps to develop a program that will engage a team of AmeriCorps members aged 50 and older to help their communities become more accessible and agefriendly. The proposed AmeriCorps project aligns closely with MAAA’s strategic plan and with the Vital Aging Network’s (VAN’s) purpose of building the individual and civic capacity of older adults to foster vital communities. VAN’s leadership, volunteers, and personnel will be instrumental in assisting
communities to recruit people 50+ as AmeriCorps members and community volunteers.

When boomers volunteer, we are not just helping others; we’re helping ourselves. Volunteering leads to new discoveries and new friends, and studies show it helps people live longer and promotes a positive outlook on life.

The key is to find a volunteer opportunity that best suits your skills, availability, and expectations. Technology is making it easier than ever to connect to local opportunities for volunteering. The Minnesota Senior Corps Association will soon launch a new, userfriendly website highlighting service opportunities for seniors across the state. On a national level, the search engine at www.getinvolved.gov is one of the largest and most advanced on the Internet. Just enter your area of interest, type in your zip code or state, and gain access to hundreds of thousands of real-time volunteer opportunities that are tailored to the skills and experience of those 55+.

Baby boomers came of age in a period of great social idealism. Many were inspired to service by President Kennedy’s famous “Ask not…” speech. Today, as the economic downturn causes hardship for millions of Americans, we need boomers to answer the call to service again. As President Obama has said, service isn’t secondary or separate from achieving national priorities; it’s essential to achieving them. It’s never too late to make a difference.

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