Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Thoughts on Volunteering in Retirement

Oh dear!! So it looks like two blog posts have entered the cloud somewhere, I'm trying to revive them.  Be patient and welcome back!

On Thursday mornings, I man the front desk at a residential shelter for women with special needs.  These gals had to have been physically homeless for two full years before they are accepted (as opposed to homeless and sleeping on couches). The shelter allows these women to stay for as long as they need, while staff helps them to get benefits they are due, helps them try to find living situations and more.  Unlike regular shelters, this one does not kick women out for having a drink as long as it is off premises and they recognize that after living on the street for two years, it will take a long time for them to re-learn how to function.

At first glance, this particular volunteer gig seems rather unromantic, or not a "fun" volunteer thing. Some days this is true. Most days though, I get to interact with all the women (giving out meds, doing crafts, helping decorate and just being there).  The thing is though, I do this particular chore because it is a need.  Sometimes filling needs is warm and fuzzy and sometimes filling a need as a volunteer is done simply because it has to be done.  

In this particular shelter, the funding allows for one staff for twenty women at a time.  That person is a caseworker, and she was so taken with busy work (handing out meds, answering the phone, helping some one in the kitchen) that she never had a chance, ever to work with clients one on one, with a closed door.  That's where I and others come in. When we first began volunteering with this organization, we had a meeting.  Rather than deciding what we wanted to do, we asked about needs. This was identified as one of their two most important needs.  So while I also cook dinner and plan evening crafts, and decorate for every holiday, I perform this service once a week.

Recently, in preparation for the new year, I did some introspection as to where my money and my energies should go in the next year (or time and treasure, for the church goers among us).  In the coming year, I'm committing to five major areas (as mentioned in the post that went missing). These are home and family, travel, health, volunteerism, and personal challenge and creativity (still looking for that right phrase).

Whether to volunteer has not been a question for me. It has always been something I was committed to. When I was searching for a new church, the amount of outreach it's members did was very high on my list. So I never had the "should I include volunteering as part of my retirement" questions. Doing so was high on my hierarchy scale, if you will.  However, I had other retirement priorities as well, and merging volunteerism into that new schedule took some time. I am not an expert on volunteerism by any means, but there are a few things I have learned along the way from myself and other retirees who volunteer.

For example, the people I know who enjoy volunteering the most are the ones who have found a true Need with a capital N. They look for the places with the big needs, and then find ways to fit their skills and likes into those  needs.  Big needs are not necessarily working with the homeless, but they are the kind of needs that are most desperate and difficult to fill, and often in the places where change is most desperately needed.

 We also find the most satisfaction when we are volunteering with, rather than to.  On my Friday night dinners and craft events, we sit and eat with the homeless women we serve-this is more than bringing food and standing behind a table while people file through in line. The friends I have who volunteer in schools and enjoy it most are those who actually get down on the floor and read to kids out loud, rather than the ones who file the books, although both are always needed.

Because I (and most of my retiree friends) travel at least part of the year, we make an effort to contribute in a way that allows for volunteering by others when we are gone. In other words, while I lead a team that feeds homeless women, I can be gone for three weeks and the world will not fall. Even at my front desk duties, I can trade off. I can go on vacation without feeling that I am letting anyone down.

We recognize that volunteering (for most retirees at last), is just part of our retirement lifestyle.  We still need room for family, recreation, rejuvenation, travel and more.  And, just as with the old "put your mask on first" cliche, we are better at helping others when we are healthy and have less issues of our own.

We prefer to volunteer in an area we truly care about (and where if possible we can use our unique gifts/hobbies/experiences).  If I were to be the expert on volunteering in retirement, my suggestions would be simple. First tell me which issues bother you the most (hunger, children, housing, the number of people in jail, neighborhood environment, or more). Then start looking for where you help in that area.  Don't wait for people to ask, or advertise. Call Habitat for Humanity, your local literacy program, head start, your neighborhood watch, whatever it is.

It certainly took me a while to find the best places to volunteer, the ones that work for me. At this point in retirement I have been able to volunteer in places that matter to me. I've also been able to volunteer from home by making quilts, hats and scarves for people, so for me, volunteering is both about leaving the house and doing so at home.

Because doing what I can to help others is important to me, as is helping my church do the same, I have committed both money and time and effort in my volunteering adventure, and have decided to continue that journey in full in the coming year. For me, this means that I have a charity/volunteering line item in my budget-separate from church giving.  It works for me.

Lastly, let me say this. No matter where you live, there is a need for volunteers. The needs may not be well advertised, and you may have some trial and error as you look for the right fit.  Be patient. Call agencies instead of waiting for notices.  Search for agencies and places you might not at first think needs help.  Habitat for Humanity is a good example.  While they need builders, they also need people to provide food for the builders, make things and help purchase things for the new homeowners, help fund raise, and do the dirty work of hauling stuff away when they remodel.

It may take a while to find the right place and time to volunteer, but once that happens, volunteering is in my experience an important part of a rich retirement.



  1. A lot of great insight on volunteering. Finding the right spot makes it so worthwhile. I have been volunteering in many ways for my local Friends of the Library group and find raising money for library programs and materials very satisfying. A bonus is working with like minded people. When we move to our retirement location I'll have to start over but you have set out some great guidelines for that.

  2. I agree that volunteering is an enriching part of retirement. Aging is of particular interest to me because my mother ended up alone in nursing home, a not a very nice one (long story) so I have a great interest in "aging in place," so people can stay in their own homes. With that in mind, I am a member of our local Council on Aging and I also am a Senior Peer Counselor, where I meet weekly with a client who is having problems with bereavement, change, depression, etc. I find it very rewarding and every time I meet with a client I think of my mother and also that one day I will have to deal with these issues myself.

  3. I dropped out a rewarding volunteer gig to deal with family issues, and miss it terribly. I still am one of the active ones in an employee retirement group. I see things about the same way you do - there's so much to do and we can actually be of service to others - and find enjoyment.

    In my retirement group, I have invited people to come and discuss volunteer opportunities -- for the most part it falls on deaf ears. And few will volunteer even for their own organization. I think that either they underestimate what they have to give - or think that contentment comes from being entertained, rather than doing.

    I worked with one group trying to improve the job search skills of women awaiting prison release. Another reading to children, while they and their parents waited at a medical clinic - the goal being to increase parental involvement in reading. - Which brings up another positive aspect -- volunteers can have more involvement with the whole community than they might among friends or family -- with folks who are younger, of different ethnic backgrounds, posing different challenges that keep your mind more flexible.

    You are right that you may have to sample groups to see if it's a good fit for you. One friend who seems to possess more clarity than me always reminds me that you do have the ability to resign if it doesn't work. I think making a real but time limited commitment may be good, if you are the type who can't walk away even if you should.


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