Jot down the first 10 words that come to mind when you think of senior citizens, and the chances are pretty good the phrase “busy volunteer” won’t be on the list.
“But, that describes about 1,200 senior citizens in Denton County,” Lori Kloepper said. She is the gregarious Volunteer Services Manager for Retired Seniors Volunteer Program (RSVP).
RSVP is a U.S. government project, The National Senior Service Corps, which is similar to the better known Peace Corps. The agency connects senior citizens with local nonprofit projects that need a helping hand.
With about 700 offices nationwide, RSVP mobilizes the energy and expertise of about a half a million senior citizens, persons 55 and older, who wish to act on their desire to give something back to their communities.
“We don’t discriminate against volunteers who are not senior citizens,” Lori said with a big laugh, “We’ve even been able to place interested teens.”
RSVP volunteers have been known to log around 118,000 hours of annual service in Denton County, no mean accomplishment, and at a price nobody including taxpayers will turn down. They donate their time ranging from a just a few to 40 hours a week. They choose where they want to serve, and how.
“We offer flexibility, which is important to the Baby Boom generation,” Lori said, “Sometimes friends want to be a tag team, and share an assignment, kind of like corporate job sharing.”
Lori’s boss, RSVP Executive Director Diana Corona said the size of the volunteer team fluctuates some, but about 800 people regularly report their hours worked.
“We know many more volunteers put in hours of service. They sometimes feel getting the job done matters more than record keeping, but statistics measure the effectiveness of the project, and that affects our funding which comes from federal, state, county, and city governments, and corporate and private sources,” Diana said.
RSVP in southern Denton County currently receives monetary support from the cities of Denton, Lewisville, and Flower Mound.
“We also receive grants from corporations, private individuals, and the Texas Department of Aging and Disability,” Diana said, “and we are a United Way agency.”
Grants are a nonprofit’s dream funding because they do not have to be repaid.
“We could use a volunteer with grant writing experience,” Diana said.
“We have good volunteer retention,” Lori said, “because we screen our members and try to match their interests, skills, and dreams with appropriate projects. We want a good fit, and we follow up with our members and their stations.”
“Station” is RSVP lingo for the community entity using a volunteer.
At present, RSVP has volunteers at over 200 stations or Denton County nonprofit organizations. That includes, but is not limited to five area hospitals, the health department, probate court, three school districts, Pedi-Place, nonprofit day care centers and nursing homes, Habitat for Humanity, police departments, homeland security, community theaters, charitable foundations, food pantries, CCA (Christian Community Action) and other faith-based projects.
“A lot of our stations have substations. A big organization like CCA, for example, may need many types of volunteers, with say, office, clinical, resale, food pantry, or fundraising skills, among other things,” Diana said.
RSVP is a volunteer facilitator: it provides and helps volunteers.
“We offer one stop shopping for prospective volunteers,” Lori said, “We recruit, screen, and place volunteers then we advocate for them. That’s one big way we differ from other facilitators that often just hand a prospective volunteer a contact name and phone number then send them on their way to handle the details.”
“RSVP stations provide background checks, training, and all necessary equipment,” she added.
Diana smiled and said, “Sometimes we hear about Rockin’ Readers who can’t resist the urge to buy a book they like for their classroom, but the only expenses volunteers must incur are their time, effort, and transportation.”
RSVP’s Rockin’ Readers came into existence after a Cracker Barrel Restaurant owner donated one of the franchise’s famous ranch rocking chairs to a local elementary school. The school principal envisioned the chair filled by a stereotypical grandparent having story time with the school’s kindergarteners and first graders. He contacted Diana, and a star volunteer initiative was born.
A kindergarten child’s “listening vocabulary” is affected by the amount of story-telling he/she experiences. Middle and high income families tend to read to their children who enter public school with a listening vocabulary seven times larger than their low income peers. This difference represents a huge academic drawback that rears its head in the shape of reading/comprehension problems from the beginning of a low income child’s school career.
Denton County RSVP’s Rockin’ Readers help address the dramatic listening vocabulary deficits of local low income public school students by reading aloud to classes for 30 minutes a week. This public school initiative receives partial support from The Armstrong Foundation, and Josten’s–the company that probably produced your high school or college class ring.
About 75% of RSVP’s team of volunteers consists of women who are retired homemakers, and many are retired professionals as well. A demographic fact RSVP has to live with is that the senior population pool has fewer men than women.
“Men approach volunteering with a different mindset than women. They have specific ideas about what they would like to do and how to get the job done,” Lori said.
Frequently that includes using the skills they honed in the workplace in fields like accounting, finance, law, and strategic planning.
“We interview all our prospective volunteers to learn about their skills and wants, and we try to get them to dream a little too, and maybe try something new,” Lori said.
Another RSVP “signature initiative” called Seniors for Childhood Immunization or SCI is credited with increasing the local immunization rate against preventable diseases by a whopping 34% in the 19 years since its inception in 1994.
SCI volunteers visit new mothers in hospitals around the county, inform them about the benefits of immunizing their infants, and offer to send immunization reminder postcards until the child’s second birthday. That contact doubled the number of immunized children to 62% of the demographic pool which makes Denton County the best immunized county in the State of Texas.
SCI receives funding from the Flow Health Care Foundation, the University of North Texas, and the health department immunization division.
The county health department turned to RSVP for volunteers after West Nile virus made local news a couple of summers ago. The department trained and equipped volunteers to make “Fight the Bite” community presentations about “The 4 D’s” of prevention.
The D’s are (1) Drain standing water in your yard or neighborhood; this includes water in old tires, flowerpots, and rain gutters. (2) Dusk and Dawn are the times of day mosquitoes prowl so stay indoors. (3) Dress in long sleeves and pants when you go outside; spray thin clothes with mosquito repellent too. And (4) DEET – look for this ingredient in insect repellents you buy. 10-30% is the volume of DEET that provides maximum repellent effectiveness.
Diana said retirement often mean seniors withdraw from the world around them. Volunteering brings them back into contact with the community, and promotes longevity, active friendships, and well-being for the volunteers.
RSVP is governed by a board of directors that also sets policy and provides financial accountability. Commonly directors are community members with professional expertise. They may or may not be retired persons.
“We need more directors,” Diana said, “and three from the southern part of the county would be excellent.”
RSVP volunteers have their own stories to tell about the experience of giving.
Nan Gwinn who has participated in Rockin’ Readers, SCI, helped at a cancer center and the Salvation Army wrote this, “I began volunteering to contribute something back to society and the universe, however I now realize I am the recipient…[volunteering] actually makes my life worth living…enjoyable and exciting…I find I can never give as much as I gain.”
For more information about RSVP contact the Lewisville office at 972-221-9663 or visit the website at www.rsvpserves.org.
It’s not too late to enter the RSVP Edward Jones Golf Classic scheduled for Tuesday, May 14, at The Golf Club at Champions Circle. “This is for amateurs only,” Diana said. Contact the RSVP office to sign up.
Pictured above (left to right): John Kelemen, Gloria Massey, Shannon Kelemen, Marvin LeDuff, Linda Lane, Kitty Dietrich, Robert Lane, Mary LeDuff, Doug Brown, Clare Schroeder, Milton Grant and Martha Esquivel.