Giving the gift of oneself

Volunteering: The baby-boom generation is approaching retirement, and they may be right on time to help out.

January 02, 2000|By Deborah Stoudt | Deborah Stoudt,Special to the Sun

Seventy-six-year-old Vivian B. Snead rides a bus and the subway five days a week (weather permitting) to Johns Hopkins Hospital to volunteer her time nurturing sick babies in the newborn nursery.

Drug-addicted infants flail their arms and legs, making it difficult to treat them. Nurses swaddle them in blankets, and volunteers soothe them with their loving touch.

"Granny's here," says Snead, who has come from her home in West Baltimore. "Be good and don't cry and Granny will take you for a ride," she says, rocking in a chair and singing. Slowly, the child drifts off to sleep.

Snead may be the face of the future. Some 24 million people age 55 and over now volunteer, and those numbers are likely to rise in coming decades.

More than 75 million baby boomers are expected to retire in the next few decades, says Marc Freedman, author of "Prime Time: How Baby Boomers Will Revolutionize Retirement and Transform America," (Public Affairs Publishers, $25). Surveys indicate volunteering will be included in "the Third Third" of their lives. According to a recent national survey conducted for Civic Ventures, a nonprofit group that recruits senior volunteers, 65 percent of seniors age 50 to 75 viewed retirement as "a time to begin a new chapter in life by... starting new activities and setting new goals."

Volunteering was listed as the second most popular retirement activity, after traveling.

Baby boomers are not more socially minded than previous generations, they are just living longer, says Harris Wofford, 73, chief executive officer of the Corporation for National Service in Washington. The corporation includes the National Senior Service Corps; AmeriCorps, a kind of domestic Peace Corps; and Learn and Serve America programs for students. "Increasing longevity by 30 years was the foremost achievement of the 20th century," he says. "The challenge now is what to do with that longevity. A lot of people didn't think about retirement 50 years ago, they just kept working until they died."

With people living longer and in good health, attitudes about seniors have changed. "Instead of seeing seniors as a problem, we are thinking of them as a resource to use their talents in a way that will delight them. They want to use their talents, time and energy to make a difference," Wofford says.

Bill Schroeder, 66, of Timonium, is among them. He began volunteering for the Chesapeake Habitat for Humanity three years ago. With limited knowledge of home construction, he learned under the tutelage of a professional construction crew employed by Habitat.

Soon he was working as a site supervisor overseeing reconstruction of a red brick rowhouse in Waverly. Volunteers demolished the inside of the vacant, abandoned house, leaving only the outer walls. Within three months, the volunteers rebuilt it.

"It's quite rewarding starting with something that was uninhabitable and fixing it so that now it's beautiful," says Schroeder, a retired computer salesman. "It looks brand new. And you've made a home for someone who otherwise would not be able to afford a house."

Violet Wise, 72, mother of 11 adult children, recalls her joy at getting the house. "I think I was probably the happiest person on earth," says Wise, who volunteers at Abbottston Elementary nearby. "I was just so thrilled."

While volunteers are needed close to home, some feel the call to a far-off place. The Peace Corps has seen its percentage of senior volunteers jump from 2 percent to 7 percent since the 1960s. Joining the Peace Corps was something Linda Dickens Robinson, 54, of Baltimore wanted to do when she was younger, but she was busy raising a family.

When her daughter and son were grown, she signed up. The corps assigned her to a district hospital in Thies, Senegal, in West Africa, working with a public health education team, teaching the community about childhood immunizations, disease prevention and family planning. While walking through the city, she saw many albinos begging along the streets. They were shunned by the community and denied medical treatment and education.

"Many died young of ski cancer because of the lack of skin pigmentation. The intense sun worsened their already terrible vision," she explained. Through her efforts, they received eyeglasses, sunscreen and hats. She helped get funding for an albino community center, named after her.

"It was a great positive experience," she says. "Volunteers say they are going over to teach, but they learn quite a bit."

With many baby boomers taking an early retirement -- or poised to retire in the next decade or so -- "the biggest challenge is going to be providing more Peace Corps-like service," says Freedman, president of Civic Ventures, which is based in San Francisco.

While more seniors are volunteering now than 40 years ago, they still donate less time than any other age group, he says.

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