According to the 2011 Volunteering in America report by the Corporation for National & Community Service, 37.6 percent of St. Louisans ages 65 to 74 volunteer. That rate surpasses the national average in the same demographic at 26.5 percent, as local seniors seek out ways to give back to their community. “Volunteering is a wonderful way for seniors to get involved, stay active, meet new friends and share their many skills while learning new ones,” says Rick Skinner, VP of United Way of Greater St. Louis’ Volunteer Center.
But how do seniors find the right volunteer position for themselves? With connections to more than 170 funded agencies, plus other organizations that meet its quality standards, the United Way can guide people to a variety of opportunities. Each senior can find an opportunity that meets his or her specific volunteer goals. Those who have decades of experience may want to share that knowledge, while others may want to try something new. “Whatever passion you have, whether it’s working with kids or gardening, there’s going to be an experience that matches those talents,” Skinner explains.
The United Way can connect seniors to short-term opportunities through its St. Louis Cares program, or help establish a long-term relationship with a specific agency. It also has recently launched a new program, Education Express, which aims to recruit mentors, tutors, homework helpers and reading partners for local schools and organizations— a great opportunity for seniors to give back, Skinner notes. “There’s a great need to make sure our youth are equipped to be successful as they grow and learn. Having an older role model can provide a really important gateway for the future.”
While United Way provides an outlet to a multitude of volunteer openings, other local institutions also have strong volunteer programs. With seniors composing the majority of its 900 volunteers, Mercy Hospital St. Louis values the contributions the older generation offers. “Volunteers are needed in every clinical area of the hospital, as well as our ancillary areas,” says coordinator of volunteer services Lauren Lee. “We try to find a position that’s helpful to the hospital and meaningful to the volunteer.”
Those positions range from the Mercy Movers transport program—popular with the mall-walking crowd as volunteers can travel up to two miles throughout the hospital during a shift—to cuddling babies in the NICU. “Seniors bring another level of companionship and care,” Lee says. “They may have been on the other side of patient care at some point and can really relate to the fears or anxieties a patient may have.”
For retired nurses who maintain their Missouri license and want to stay connected to their career, Mercy runs a Volunteer Nurse Program, overseen by clinical supervisor Sally Rundquist. The majority of the nurses in the program are age 50 and older and offer extra comfort to patients. “They bring maturity and life experience to the bedside, which is very valuable,” Rundquist says.
For those seniors whose passion is the theater, the Fox Theatre’s Volunteer Usher program has been a popular choice. The program utilizes 125 ushers each performance night to greet, direct and seat guests. With an average age of 68 (and the oldest checking in at 92), the position is ideal for seniors, says director of volunteers Carol Noel. “The ushers get a chance to watch the show after intermission and also have that social avenue—it has great appeal for retirees.”
The nine sets of ushers each work a certain performance night, averaging twice a month. The program also coordinates outside social activities and other community outreach opportunities, creating a close-knit atmosphere. Thirty-six ushers have volunteered at the Fox all 30 years of the program. “Our ushers are very proud that they are here—they see it as a very prestigious volunteer position, and they bring a lot of experience.”
That experience and knowledge is a running theme behind senior volunteer work. Older St. Louisans have much to contribute to the community and have a desire to make it an even better place to live, Skinner says. “Seniors want to give back and perhaps even leave a legacy, where they know they’re making a difference in the community.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION ON VOLUNTEER OPPORTUNITIES:
United Way of Greater St. Louis
211 or 539-4063
Mercy Hospital St. Louis
Saint Louis Zoo
646-4723 or 646-4548
Junior League of St. Louis
Saint Louis Art Museum