Retirees often take up the slack by volunteering throughout Carroll

Spirit of voluntarism keeps parks, churches and senior centers going

January 19, 2000|By Jean Marie Beall | Jean Marie Beall,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

After 30 years as the Baltimore Zoo's curator of reptiles, one would think Frank Groves had enough of snakes and slimy creatures. Not so. In his retirement, the 79-year-old cleans the snake cages at Piney Run Nature Center in South Carroll.

"I like to keep my hand in my work," said Groves, who also volunteers four hours a week for his former employer.

Groves is one of hundreds of senior volunteers who give their time, knowledge and energy to parks, senior centers, churches and more in Carroll County.

Lynette Brewer, Carroll County's community services supervisor who oversees the five senior centers, said she has noticed a marked change in the age and character of volunteers.

"Ten years ago, the volunteers were older, in their late 60s and 70s," she said. "They were looking to fill a need for themselves. The new volunteer is newly retired, physically healthy and still in the work mode. Their focus is different as to why they volunteer. These volunteers don't need to be needed, they just need to be active."

"I would estimate my senior volunteers give 250 to 300 hours a month," said Elaine Sweitzer, a naturalist at Piney Run who coordinates volunteers. "Their productivity is amazing. If we had to pay these people as employees, the county would have to shut down. They couldn't afford it."

Sweitzer said she has 17 senior volunteers who help on a regular basis, each giving about six hours a week.

"And they seem to be most productive," she continued. "It's not that they have more time to give, but they manage that time well. Many of our volunteers also volunteer at other places."

Chuck Merkel of Eldersburg is typical of what Sweitzer is talking about. He volunteers at Bear Branch Nature Center near Westminster about four hours a week.

"I've been volunteering here since a couple of months before [the nature center] opened in the early 1990s," Merkel said. "My wife, Joanne, and I came up here once and liked walking around. One of the naturalists then said she needed some help answering phones. So, we started helping out."

The Merkels volunteer elsewhere as well.

"We also volunteer at [Baltimore-Washington International Airport] at the information desk four hours a week," said Merkel, a former project manager at Westinghouse who retired in 1991.

Senior volunteer Jan Hersh estimates she spends nearly four hours each week behind the desk at Bear Branch Nature Center. "I love to watch the kids here," said Hersh, who taught elementary school for 27 years before retiring in 1992. "Especially when it is their first time here. I love nature and enjoy keeping busy and I enjoy the people."

Jo Ann Hunter, acting manager of Hashawha Environmental Center and Bear Branch, said senior volunteers are very reliable.

"Many, many seniors travel and are extremely active," she said. "But they usually plan ahead, and they don't have surprise cancellations because of issues like a sick child."

Managers at the county's five senior centers said volunteers put in hundreds of hours at the centers, assisting in craft activities, serving meals and planning dances.

In Westminster, the senior center is the only one that serves a noon and evening meal. Because of that, more volunteers are needed in the kitchen and to serve meals.

"One of the big functions of the senior center is to serve a hot meal," said Charlene Fischer, manager of the center. "Our senior volunteers help serve the meals, and they work in the kitchen. We look at our volunteers as providing a lot of manpower."

One volunteer said she started volunteering 10 years ago after she retired and started visiting the senior center in Westminster.

"I was about 60 when I started volunteering here," said Westminster resident Mary Sanders, now 70. "They needed help. You have to have volunteers to run any organization. The county just doesn't have the money."

Debbie Shindle, manager of Mount Airy Senior Center, and Renee Deiaco, North Carroll Senior Center manager, agreed.

"We have a limited staff of one and a half," Shindle said. "Without our volunteers we would not be able to provide the kinds of services we do."

"I have about 50 volunteers doing 10 or more hours a week, with some who have more than 200 hours in a quarter," she said.

Frances Barnes of Hampstead started volunteering at the North Carroll center 12 years ago by answering phones.

"I'm a workaholic, I'll tell you that right off the bat," Barnes said. "I average four to five hours a day here and sometimes I do things at home. We had an accountant here once and he was talking about how much money we save the center. But I don't think about the hours. I just enjoy doing it."

Manchester senior volunteer Mary Blilhart said she has been volunteering there at least 16 years.

"Ever since we had a senior center," Blilhart said. "I enjoy doing it, whatever needs to be done. I don't like sitting around."

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