Monday, March 10, 2014

My New Volunteer Gig-Taking a Huge Leap

I've previously talked about my new volunteer retirement gig. A few people have asked for more information and I have been slow in giving it. I've been slow for three reasons-my new money gig has kept me busy, I don't want to sound like I'm blowing my own horn, and I know darned well I tend to sound like a teacher sometimes on subject such as these. That said, it's worth sharing my experience in this area.  It's nice to talk about the reward one can get from intense volunteering in retirement. 

We all have different thoughts on volunteering. I generally have strong ones on  the subject of volunteering and volunteering in retirement. I tend to think that the most reward is found with the most marginalized. I also tend to feel that just because we've walked away from he working world, doesn't mean our community contributions should stop. Most importantly, I believe that marginalized populations are where the largest changes are made (including at the individual one on one level). 

One of the reasons I chose my church was because of the so called "outreach programs".  Specifically, for the last year, I have been involved in a program called Safe Haven. This volunteer ministry was formed to support homeless women.  Each night, a different church hosts a total of twenty homeless women (whose names are drawn by lottery) where they are given cots and blankets, dinner and breakfast as well as conversation and company. There are not enough spaces for women in Denver, and the government rushes to find room for men in order to cut down on violence and panhandling. They rush to place women and families in order to protect the children.  Single women (of all ages) are left to fend for themselves.

It would be easy to judge these women as having made bad choices,not taking responsibility for their mental health, or having any one of a dozen other issues. Certainly some of that can be true, in come cases.  The changing laws in this country rarely allow for keeping someone against their will.  At the same time, no one has ever tried in the long term to train these women to handle their own mental health. For everyone who is mentally ill though, there is another. The last time I worked this particular service, there were two young women. Both were older than high school age, yet younger than my son. Both had  backpack full of books and tests the next day-financial aid enough for school but not enough for a room or apartment so they sleep on the street and school by day. 

Another women is a veteran minus a limb with PTSD. She gets some disability but not enough to live on-so the VA treats her, and she sleeps on the street. A couple of these women are my age-and not mentally ill.  While I have not asked them why they are where they are, to write them off as people who did not "plan well" would be wrong and simplistic in my opinion. Both of these women, from what I have heard, have families-who know they are homeless.  And there are many others.  These women are, for the most part, creative in taking care of themselves. One young lady takes a large umbrella with her wherever she goes.  Why?  Because if there is no room for a shelter, she covers herself with the umbrella and a blanket. This is not considered a tent, and the police will not tear it down or take it away.  All of these women take everything they own, everywhere they go, every day. A few of them spend what little cash they have each month on a shared storage unit-they do plan to not be homeless forever and someday and they will need those small possessions to start their lives in whatever small place they end up.

Recently, my church stopped this ministry-or rather, someone else took it over. This was not because we were unwilling to support these women. On the contrary, it was because we would like to support them on a bigger level.  Our goal is, alone or with other organizations, to create a permanent place for women to stay, where they could leave their items and come back to the same place-every night.  As such, we are investigation options, costs, locations and all the logistics involved with being part of a "permanent shelter"

As part of our discernment, we have become involved in another, permanent, women's residence. This residence is extremely successful and does just the opposite of many short term shelters.  All the women who come here have had to be homeless for two years.  There is no time limit for how long they are allowed to stay-the goal is permanent independence and for some women that may take months. One woman was in the shelter for well over a year-but when she left, she left for good and now lives on her own. The women are giving access to health resources and counseling. The staff helps them to receive every benefit to which they are entitled be it mental health services, SSI or other disability payments, veterans benefits, education benefits, you name it.

Most importantly from my perspective, is that the shelter management is non judgemental and realizes that just like the rest of us, some of these women will make the same mistakes many times over before getting it "right", and the proper solution is not to shove them out at the first mistake.  The only reason any of the residents of this shelter are asked to leave is for threatening behavior to staff or using or selling in the shelter itself. Anything else, including drinking and drug use off premises, is dealt with counseling and support.  And finally, women who leave can return at any time-be it to eat, sleep on the sofa, talk to a staff person, get counseling or anything else. They learn that they are part of a family.

Since this is the kind of model we hope to establish for our shelter, my group has jumped into this with both feet. In the next few months we will be doing counseling sessions, teaching life skills, supporting a walking group, teaching cooking, and knitting. We'll be providing a non institutional meal a few nights each month along with an activity. Most importantly we will be learning about their needs and they will learn to be comfortable with us. We will build relationships while learning the things we know to begin our own supportive environment.  I have become a team leader on one of the two teams involved in this project.

I have done VERY intensive volunteering before, both long and short term. I have built with Habitat for Humanity. I have been the church to agency coordinator for two low income agencies-one that helped seniors (in spite of our uplifting comments on many blogs, the number of seniors that live in poverty is frightening), an another that ran an after school and summer program for kids. I've managed a food pantry. 

 This particular volunteer opportunity is different for me, on two levels. First, because I am looking at making both immediate and long term differences with a small group of individuals rather than a large generalized group. Second, because this particular volunteer opportunity requires working WITH. Most volunteering tends to be doing things to, or for a certain population (with Habitat perhaps the exception). Volunteering done by giving, advocating. annual donation, or one time efforts such as food baskets. This particular commitment is long term and will require working WITH this small group-and listening to what they say they need, rather than what I think that they should need. A completely different perspective, trust me.

This volunteer gig has been challenging in many ways and yet has enriched my retirement in so many ways, just as other parts of my retirement have done. Volunteering is not something that we should resent as being intrusive in retirement, but rather something that becomes part of our overall retirement life.  I'm really excited about this new part of my retirement lifestyle and cannot wait to get started!


  1. That is cool Barb. Sounds like a great ministry.

    1. I certainly think it will be, but what a big step@

  2. I am a firm believer in community volunteering. I live in a rural community with a can-do attitude. One of the latest endeavors was raising funds for a spray park that now draws folks from surrounding communities. Community needs are often high and it takes a champion like your church organization to lead the way. Bob's last blog on A Satisfying Retirement was about the "fire in the belly" and volunteering is a way to keep that fire going and feed our need for purposeful activity. Good on you, Barb.

    1. I am really excited. It's large bite, but well worth it!

  3. This is awe-inspiring, Barb. I positively love your blog and especially this communication about your volunteer contributions. You gave me some ideas as I am recently retired after a long career in health care. All the best to you in this endeavor. Mary

  4. Thanks so much. This is a huge volunteer commitment and I realize that others may not be up to this level.


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