Volunteering my services, as a recently retired person seeking an encore career, sure is different from anything I have encountered before. I am surprised by how difficult it has been. Why am I, a recently retired educator and school administrator, having a hard time finding the right fit? Is it my age or a bias against using volunteers in general?
How hard have you tried, you might reasonably ask. Well, aside from the folks at the preschool I founded, who will gladly accept whatever time I offer, I have encountered a series of closed doors. Perhaps I am knocking on the wrong doors. I knock tentatively, unsure which one will open or what the prize will be if it does. Behind which door will I find the organization that both interests me and is also interested in the skills I have acquired over a lifetime? Like many retirees, I am seeking a way to make a meaningful contribution, but it has been hard to find.
What a departure from my past life as a volunteer at my children’s schools and in my community. I used to tell myself to sit on my hand because, whenever I raised it, I ended up chairing another committee. I never felt the sting of a non-response. If I wanted to reach out, there was always someone grateful to embrace my offer of help. All doors were open – I just had to choose.
In my many years founding and then directing Warren Cherry Preschool, I depended on volunteers for their enthusiasm, great ideas, and dedication. Every family was expected to contribute in some way. Volunteers from the community and grandparents of our students were always welcome. Our motto was, “The heart of Cherry is its people.” Volunteers created and sustained the preschool as it grew to be a large and well-respected program in our community. They raised money, built playgrounds, helped in our classrooms, served on our board, and literally painted every wall in the building. Most importantly, they had creative and innovative ideas. They taught me how to be a much better administrator and leader.
Now that I am a woman of a certain age on the volunteering end of the equation, I wonder why so many doors are so difficult to open. Why are “community volunteers” (translation: retired people) only used as a last resort by schools, which prefer to have parents (translation: young people)? Many “community volunteers” are highly qualified former professionals who still have the time, energy, enthusiasm, creativity, sense of fun, and life experience to make significant contributions. They are not constrained by sick kids or extra work responsibilities, and they are happy to donate their time and talent to projects that make good use of their skill sets.
Perhaps my situation reflects societal changes. When I was a young woman, people literally opened their doors to anyone who knocked. They would see who was on the other side and talk to that person to find out what she wanted or needed. Now we (including me) are more cautious. We don’t open our doors to strangers. We don’t even talk to them on the phone now that we have caller ID. We delete their emails, regarding them as “junk.”
So I am left wondering about the experiences I have had seeking an opportunity to make a meaningful volunteer contribution. Is it my “retired” status? Is someone my age viewed as too old to be useful? Is it a shift in volunteerism? Are there not only fewer volunteers, but are also fewer organizations interesting in using them?
My message to any organization needing help: Open your door and open your mind. Take a few minutes to talk to that retired volunteer seeking a meaningful third act. You may be surprised how much those retirees have to offer.
I wonder if there is a way to encourage all of us to open our doors a bit to see who’s there. Do you have a story to share? Have you encountered a series of closed doors? What are the impediments to tapping into the pool of retirees eager to find a meaningful way to serve?
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