Prime Living

Want a long, happy life? Volunteer!

By Paul Archipley | Jun 21, 2017

You may have seen the statistic: baby boomers are retiring at an average rate of 10,000 per day. Tired of work, but not tired of living, many are seeking satisfaction by turning their interests to volunteerism.

Opportunities are, literally, endless. John McAlpine, the program coordinator/recruiter for the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program of Snohomish County (RSVP), has been pairing volunteers with openings for 13 years.

RSVP, sponsored by Catholic Community Services, serves as a kind of clearinghouse, matching volunteers over age 55 with nonprofits and civic organizations that need their expertise, skills and energy.

“RSVP acts as a broker between the agencies and volunteers,” McAlpine said. “People come to us and ask what needs to be done in the community.

“At the same time, our partners give us job descriptions so the volunteers know what they’re getting into.”

That’s how Bill Cheesman got involved with the Boys & Girls Club in Arlington. He had retired from Verizon Wireless, decided he wanted to volunteer, and stopped by the RSVP offices in Everett.

After chatting with Cheesman, McAlpine turned to his computer and looked at opportunities that seemed to match Cheesman’s interests and abilities.

Ostensibly, Cheesman (pronounced Chessman) goes to the Boys & Girls Club to help children with their homework. In reality, he’s a mentor.

“A lot of these kids are living with a single parent,” Cheesman said. “A lot of them don’t have a father figure.”

In the beginning, young people are leery of opening up to an old guy. “You have to talk to them three or four times before they’ll open up,” he said. “Should I trust this guy?”

After awhile, however, they realize he’s safe to talk to. “I get into their heads a little bit,” he said.

More than once a child has experienced an “attitude adjustment” that has produced grateful parents. One mother, Cheesman recalled, was brought to happy tears after his talks with her angry daughter helped turn the girl around.

“I get along real good with kids,” Cheesman said. “I have a good rapport with them.”

When he was younger, he coached youth sports for years, taking advantage of that rapport.

But he said his interest in helping youth went back farther, to a psychology class he took at Edmonds Community College.

As part of the class requirements, Cheesman worked with a girl who had Down syndrome. Driving home one day, it struck him how the challenges she faced far outweighed those of a typical kid. He decided he wanted to do more to help those who have bigger mountains to climb.

“That’s what got me going,” he said. “It followed me, and I just wanted to work with kids after that.”

If and when he’s no longer needed at the Boys & Girls Club, Cheesman said he’ll find other volunteer work.

“I just feel good about it,” he said. “I guess I’ve made a positive impact on some of them.”

Cheesman may not know it, but to “feel good about it” actually translates into better health for him, too.

Studies show that people who volunteer live longer and have better mental health than their contemporaries. They’re happier and healthier.

“There’s no downside to volunteering,” McAlpine said.

Elizabeth Grant, the director of the Snohomish Community Food Bank, can point to a couple of volunteers as evidence.

One is Sue Koch, a schoolteacher who has been volunteering at the food bank for 21 years; another, Don Sack, until recently had been volunteering 10-12 hours per week but, at 80, reluctantly decided he needed to slow down a little.

“These are people who give of themselves without any conditions,” Grant said. “I sit in a really good spot, seeing the best in people.”

A total of 282 volunteers worked 21,670 hours for the food bank last year, she said. While most are retirees, there also are plenty of young people, including high school students who can “letter” in volunteerism.

“I love putting together older and younger volunteers. I love the multigenerational aspect of it,” she said.

When she needs volunteers, she goes to RSVP first. The food bank also gets volunteers through its Facebook page, and some simply walk in the door, offering to help.

Paulette Jacobson, volunteer services manager at RSVP, said they work with a wide range of organizations to help place volunteers, including the Boeing Bluebills (Boeing retiree volunteers), Habitat for Humanity, United Way, Domestic Violence Services, Saint Joseph’s House, food banks, police and fire departments, libraries, schools and more.

And volunteers come from all walks of life, Jacobson said. “We have truck drivers, we have doctors, we have a wonderful group of volunteers.”

The options are plentiful. There’s constant need for people to do yard and housework for seniors who want to continue living in their homes but need a little help. Seniors who no longer drive need transportation to doctors appointments or other errands (Volunteers, while not paid, are reimbursed for gas.).

Jacobson said one longtime volunteer who is homebound because she has to care for her husband has nevertheless made huge contributions by knitting items for “people in crisis.”

There are peer-to-peer counseling opportunities for good listeners, openings for state health benefits advisers, tax filing assistants, carpentry work, breast cancer survivor groups and much, much more.

And unlike a paid job, a volunteer has the freedom to pick and choose what he or she wants to do.

Cheesman said friends and other retirees tell him they’re interested in volunteering, but are hesitant.

“A lot of people don’t know what they’re getting into,” he said. “I say, ‘You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to.’ There’s no pressure.”

Cheesman himself, however, plans to keep right on volunteering, if not at the Boys & Girls Club, then somewhere else.

“If I help one kid,” he said, “it’s worth it.”

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