During most of my career as a social worker, my concept of volunteerism has been framed by memories of school days. When teachers needed a task performed, they asked for volunteers--to "empty the trash . . . clean the blackboard . . . distribute the books." Raising one's hand to help out often became an embarrassment; frequently, the volunteer was labeled "teacher's pet" or, worse, the 1930s equivalent of "wimp" (I believe it was "drip!").
When I became the director of Volunteers for Family Service of Los Angeles, volunteerism was certainly no longer confined to a teacher's need and a schoolgirl's whim. It was an institutional necessity--serious business--to be studied, encouraged and implemented. When the economic crunch of the late '60s and early '70s spawned an increase in social service needs, agency executives began to visualize volunteers as the logical answer to extending and enhancing community institutions.
No longer denigrated or teased, volunteers today are recruited, trained, supervised, rewarded and applauded as valuable workers and loyal supporters of the agencies they serve. Just as those of us who are over 50, 60 or 70 come in many "shades of gray," so the opportunities for volunteer positions are colorfully variegated: teacher's aides, peer counselors, fund-raisers, board members, foster grandparents for sick or lonely kids, supporters of the ill, the abused, the addicted and the homeless, advocates for children, drivers for the infirm, etc.
It isn't all motivated by altruism. For those of us who have spent most of our adult lives occupied and busy, the leisure of retirement can be a threatening bore. "How can I fill my days constructively? How can I preserve my mental and physical health without sacrificing this precious, new-found freedom?"
When my friend Bill retired, he took some time before deciding how to use and allocate his skills and energies. On his knees, with trowel in hand, the chemist and former public health worker took refuge in his garden, planting, digging--and always thinking. The flowers of his labor were lovely, the rewards of his meditations reassuring.
The time Bill spent in the garden, removed from the routine of his career, enabled him to adjust to retirement and prepared him to plan new commitments. Before long, Bill was juggling responsibilities as conscientious president of his homeowners association, dedicated gardener and avid golfer.
It could have been enough, but it wasn't. He was invited to join the Kiwanis Club. With his brother and sister Kiwanians, Bill is involved in coaching and supervising children for the Special Olympics, helping developmentally disabled youngsters participate and compete in a variety of sports. The big competition is an annual meet, but the training and preparation continue all year throughout the region.
Bill also works with a North County parks department to help care for latchkey children, who are on their own after school while their parents work. Bill tutors the children, supporting their desire to learn and complementing their teachers' responsibility to teach. In addition, he is part of the cadre that trains members of the high school's Key Club (those children who maintain a high grade point average) to reach out to the elderly, the infirm and the poor, thus encouraging these teen-agers to share a bit of self with others.
His wife Betty also has found numerous niches for her skills.
Betty was a reading specialist who taught in Los Angeles County schools, at both the primary and college levels, and now tutors adults, one on one, through the literacy program sponsored by the San Diego County Library.
She mentions with a touch of chagrin that she is working out a conflict at the moment. There is a literacy program that challenges volunteers who are ambitious and stout of heart: teaching reading to prison inmates. The need is overwhelming. Betty is not sure she has the stamina or courage for this assignment. She recognizes that she may not be prepared for every opportunity for volunteer service.
Volunteering in the community is neither a new concept nor solely for retirees. Almost all of us have worked diligently and conscientiously for church, synagogue, community or school without pay, answering needs and earning satisfaction. The habits are there, ready to be exercised and implemented "when the time is right." It seems to me that the time is right now, when we retirees have an abundance of freedom.
Betty and Bill manage to fill their days constructively without effort. Dedicated members of their neighborhood church, they enrich their own lives as they improve the lives of others. Yet they find time for fun and games. Golf, friendly card games, travel and modest parties balance their voluntary outreach to strangers. Respected and loved by their family and friends, they are rapidly emerging as leaders in their North County community.
As we sat, winding down our discussion, I noticed that Betty was glancing at her watch. Finally, she confessed: "There is an elderly couple who have just moved into a local retirement home. I must run over there to be sure they are settling in comfortably . . . "