February 28, 2014

RSVP matches retired and senior persons with volunteer opportunities

RSVP volunteer Carolyn Crowell teaches English to a Burmese refugee on Feb. 10. RSVP is a clearinghouse of volunteer opportunities for those ages 55 and older. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

RSVP volunteer Carolyn Crowell teaches English to a Burmese refugee on Feb. 10. RSVP is a clearinghouse of volunteer opportunities for those ages 55 and older. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Natalie Hoefer

GREENWOOD—When Carolyn Crowell retired, she looked forward to doing “nothing.”

“My first year of retirement, I decided I worked all my life so I didn’t want to do anything, and that’s what I did,” said the 69-year-old former health care worker.

“Now I’m getting kind of bored. ‘Nothing’ is nice for a while, but then you need something,” said Crowell.

The something she chose was a nearby volunteer opportunity working with immigrants on their language skills.

It’s an opportunity she said she would not have discovered without the help of the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP).

RSVP is a national volunteer network for people ages 55 and older. It is a service of Senior Corps, a group of programs administered by the Corporation for National and Community Service federal agency (CNCS).

“RSVP is a clearinghouse of volunteer opportunities,” said Monica Woodsworth, director of RSVP of Central Indiana, a branch operated by Catholic Charities Indianapolis that covers Hamilton, Hendricks, Johnson and Marion counties. (Related: RSVP branches are located throughout central and southern Indiana)

“Depending on what the volunteers are interested in and how much time they want to spend, it’s our job to help them find a good fit in the community.”

The benefits to those ages 55 and older who volunteer are numerous, according to studies cited in CNCS literature.

Such benefits include improved physical and mental health, enhanced longevity, reduced chronic pain, reduced depression and anxiety, increased independence and self-esteem, and improved quality of life.

Every hour is ‘significant’

Woodsworth said the process starts with a background check and review of references because “volunteers could work with our most vulnerable citizens, like the elderly and children.”

Next, she said, “we give them information to look through and see what their options could be, and let them prioritize what they want to do.”

Volunteer opportunities include anything from Catholic Charities services to community programs, said Woodsworth.

And RSVP is non-denominational.

“You don’t have to be Catholic to volunteer with RSVP,” she said. “It’s open to anybody.”

“Anybody” means no upper age limit—Woodsworth said she currently has volunteers ranging in ages from 55-96—and includes those with limitations, such as transportation.

“If someone doesn’t have transportation, we try to figure out how we can get them involved in the easiest way possible,” she said, including looking at public transportation and volunteer opportunities close to home.

“We tell the volunteers, ‘If you only have an hour once a week or every two weeks, that hour is just as significant to the person you’re helping as if you were able to give more,’ ” Woodsworth said.

‘We stay connected’

Once a volunteer is matched with an opportunity, RSVP representatives serve as a liaison between the volunteer and the organization where the person serves.

“We follow up with both the organization and the volunteer to make sure it’s working,” said Woodsworth. “If it is, that’s great.

“If it doesn’t [work out], we work with [the volunteer] in trying to figure out what didn’t work—did they have a change in priorities, or it just wasn’t what they thought it was going to be.

“Then we work with them [on finding something else]. Just because one opportunity didn’t work out, that doesn’t mean other opportunities aren’t still there,” she said.

Even after a successful volunteering match has been established, said Woodsworth, “We stay connected [with the volunteers] through educational programs and volunteer appreciation.

“At least once a year, we try to bring our volunteers together for a Senior Corps luncheon,” she said.

“We’ve had [educational sessions] on disability and inclusion, and baby boomers as caregivers. We had [someone from] the Social Security Administration come in.

“We like to give out information that can potentially help [the volunteers] in addition to the people they’re helping as they volunteer,” Woodsworth said.

‘Anything we can to [offer] support’

Because all of the volunteers are at least 55, said Woodsworth, “we know that more than likely they’ll end up being a family caregiver at some point.”

In such situations, she said, continuing to volunteer, even if for less time, “gives them a sense of self-continuity throughout the caregiving. And when the caregiving ends, they haven’t lost everything,” she said.

Consequently, RSVP offers caregiver support.

“We have support groups. We do simple home modifications, anything we can to support [the volunteers] to do caregiving in the best way possible so they can keep their own life—which may include volunteering—but also help the person who needs them.

“We don’t want caregiving to be about [the volunteers] isolating themselves into a caregiving role,” said Woodsworth. “We want caregiving to be about making all the connections within the community that could possibly support them, as well as staying connected to volunteering if that has been a part of their life.”

‘A way to do something useful’

Crowell said she “just loves” her volunteer work for Catholic Charities Indianapolis’ refugee and immigration services, making welcome cards for refugees from Burma and tutoring them in English.

“I enjoy helping people, especially these people trying to make something of their lives,” said Crowell, a mother of four and grandmother of seven. “They ask questions. They are so eager to learn. It’s just awesome.”

Crowell said that volunteering “gives me something to do. I figure this is a way to do something useful.”

The location where Crowell volunteers is just a few blocks from her home. Since she does not have a car, the proximity of the location not only makes volunteering possible for her, she said, but allows her to “get my exercise—it gets me out and moving.”

Jessica Inabnitt, a member of Our Lady of the Greenwood Parish in Greenwood, serves as the lead instructor for teaching English as a second language at the facility where Crowell volunteers.

“She’s been very helpful,” Inabnitt said of Crowell. “A lot of the refugees took to her right away. She’s got that grandmotherly, nurturing sense about her.

“Sometimes, I think we put the elderly in a box,” said Inabnitt. “After a certain age, we think they’re of no use, and that’s just not right.”

She looked over at Crowell, engaged in helping a young Burmese woman learn the days of the week.

“She is a great asset,” said Inabnitt. “And RSVP is a great program.”

(For more information on the Catholic Charities of Indianapolis’ branch of RSVP covering Hamilton, Hendricks, Johnson and Marion counties, contact Monica Woodsworth at 317-261-3378, or e-mail her at mwoodsworth@archindy.org.)

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