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Seniors make a difference in Houston by volunteering

November 21, 2016 GMT

The church is a small one. So is its budget. That’s why the couple of seniors arrives in their red pick-up every other week. While he mows the grounds, she picks up twigs, fallen branches and litter. Some weeks she trims the hedges with an electric trimmer she and her husband have donated to the church’s tool shed.

They also donated the lawnmower and continue to volunteer elsewhere during the week.

Take a look around - and you don’t have to look far, senior volunteers are everywhere...in schools, synagogues, churches, reading and recording books for the blind, and they also volunteer at their temples and mosques, in the theatre, at concerts, the opera, hospitals, special events, nursing homes and anywhere people power is needed.

As more people live longer and are healthier, greater Houston has been the recipient of an unexpected gift: legions of senior volunteers.

Dorothy McCaine, 84, has lived at The Buckingham, a Houston senior community, for almost five years, and she continues to actively volunteer at the Houston Grand Opera, as she has for the past 30 years. She also has volunteered at Houston Methodist Hospital since 1985.

“My mother volunteered, which may be part of the reason I volunteer,” McCaine said modestly. “However, I started volunteering at the hospital because many of my family have been patients here, received amazing care and I wanted to give back.”

Decades ago, she saw a newspaper ad from the Grand Opera, asking for volunteer docents to go around schools.

“I’ve always loved opera and have served in many areas,” she said. “At one point, I retired, but missed the people so much, I started back, volunteering in the archives.”

In the archives, McCaine has had many duties, but she currently works with the hundreds of photographs taken of the production.

“My job is to identify the people in the photographs, so the pictures can be used when the operas and performers go on tour,” she said.

At home at The Buckingham, McCaine also volunteers, working as secretary of the lifestyles committee and on the committee that welcomes and orients new residents to the community.

“I love volunteering,” she said, “and I am proud to be a part of these organizations that do so much for our community. It is a privilege to help them.”

According to a recent North America survey conducted by the Home Instead Senior Care network, seven in 10 U.S. senior volunteers and three out of five Canadian senior volunteers said they plan on volunteering “forever.”

Seniors living in Houston’s senior communities often organize for volunteer projects located in the city while other residents, individually and as groups, offer their time at their favorite charities.

In Houston during Christmas, Jewish hospital volunteers step up to fill the volunteer hours pledged by their Christian counterparts. During the Jewish High Holidays, non-Jewish hospital volunteers fill in for their Jewish friends...truly a well-coordinated system that assures those being assisted by hospital volunteers are not left to fend for themselves.

John Bushkeul, 80, recently garnered the honor of “Unsung Hero,” voted by fellow residents, at the annual volunteer appreciation dinner at Eagle’s Trace, a southwest Houston senior community.

“We have a second-hand store called ‘The Treasure Chest,’ where we sell items at very reasonable prices our residents no longer use,” said Bushkeul, formerly professor of engineering at the University of Arkansas. “It’s almost a seven-days-a-week job,” he said, picking up furniture and items to sell at our furniture store and our smaller items shop.

“We also have special apartment sales when residents move or pass away. We often fix or repair items,” Bushkeul said. “If we can’t fix it, we recycle it. We also work with local charities, where we donate items we can’t sell.”

The Treasure Chest is open for customers who include workers and community residents, nearby neighbors and people who are just beginning their households.

“Our proceeds go into a resident care to help residents who run out of money, and we also have a scholarship fund for our high school wait staff so they can go to college...and some of our profits once into our staff appreciation fund,” said the volunteer, who inherited the Treasure Chest duties from the founder. “We have no overhead. We pay no salaries and the community donates space for our stores and a warehouse.

Bushkeul thinks the effort is worthwhile.

“We have 50 volunteers to help in store, carry furniture and many shoppers. It keeps me busy,” he said, “and it’s much different from our volunteer jobs when our children were younger.”

Also a resident of Eagle’s Trace, Pat Rapp is a bubbly and enthusiastic 89-year-old who began volunteering at Texas Children’s Hospital many years ago.

Today, she’s a regular at Ronald McDonald House and Texas Children’s Neonatal.

“It’s my therapy,” she said, and she also knits baby caps to keep infants warm in their incubators.

“I knit in the evenings,” she said. “I taught myself to knit after my patient grandmother gave up on me.”

This great-grandmother also collects and saves soft drink cans pull tabs.

“Ronald McDonald House can receive money from Coke, I think, and they use the money to buy new toys for the game room.”

Rapp said she enjoys every day and plans to continue volunteering. “It’s a great life,” she added.

Joan Hessidence, 61, grew up in small-town Ohio, where volunteering was almost a necessity. Her parents volunteered for many projects and she said volunteering was always a part of her life.

“I started volunteering at the Houston Food Bank while I was still working. Then, after I retired in 2011, I became an Apple Core Volunteer as a Core Specialist in 2012, working in communications and other areas where I could use skills I learned while I was working in human resources.”

She decided to volunteer because it enables her to meet like-minded people wanting to make a positive difference.

“After I retired, I still wanted to have some degree of structure to my life - and regular volunteer assignments provides that...plus the camaraderie of the people I volunteer with.”

Hessidence and her husband were donors to the Houston Food Bank before she began volunteering. “I work about 25 hours a month at the Food Bank,” she said.

“I’ve known about hunger all my life, but working at the food bank has made me more aware. I see the people, hear their stories. Yes, being here has given me more awareness.”

Volunteer opportunities for Houston-area seniors

Got a couple of hours to give? Why not volunteer?

There are many and varied opportunities everywhere – places where you and your time can make a big difference. Just look around and find a place or an event needing volunteers. Find a cause you care about. Ask where you can help.

Are you concerned about hunger in our town? Try the food bank (http://www.houstonfoodbank.org). Care about animals? The Houston Humane Society (http://www.houstonhumane.org) needs volunteers who can volunteer twice a month for a minimum of six months.

Meals On Wheels of Houston (https://www.imgh.org/meals-on-wheels) depends on 3,000-plus volunteers through the year. They offer individual and group volunteer opportunities, delivering meals and brightening the day for thousands of homebound seniors, Mondays through Fridays.

Want to help veterans? Michael E. DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center may be a good fit. One hundred volunteer hours and six months service are required. Volunteers are screened. A $10 volunteer vest is also needed.

Volunteer Houston (http://volunteerhouston.org) is a clearinghouse for a wide variety of organizations needing volunteers. From transporting puppies and kittens to weekend adoption events to sorting donations, leading gardening workshops, serving as a bilingual volunteer, and more.

The Volunteer Houston motto is, “Connecting people with their passions.” It’s about finding that spot where you can enjoy helping, being a part of a bigger picture. From sorting medical supplies to mentoring students preparing for college.

Why would you want to volunteer?

Because somebody - maybe many somebodies need you. Because you get back twice as much as you give...you can make a difference in someone’s life, there is purpose in volunteering and oh, the places you’ll go and the people you’ll meet.

Want to enrich your life? Volunteer.

More opportunities

Those who are compassionate about fighting hunger can volunteer at their local soup kitchen, a food bank, or Meals on Wheels, or even advocate for hunger relief at the social or political level. Helping veterans, children, or those affected by natural disasters are also very rewarding volunteer opportunities.

If you or your loved one are looking for a more intellectual way to contribute, being a docent or tour guide at a local museum or botanical garden might be more your style. Check with a nearby college or university – like UC Davis’ Retiree Center, many offer ample volunteer opportunities both on campus and with associated organizations.

No matter which cause you choose, though, it will confer physical, social and psychological benefits, and you’ll experience the joy that comes from knowing you’re using your unique set of skills and your lifetime of experience to help others in need. What better reward than that?

Foster Grandparents is a program dedicated to helping children’s organizations through tutoring, mentoring and caring for youth with disadvantages or special needs. They help in diverse settings, including schools, hospitals, child care centers, detention facilities and drug treatment centers. (Extra bonus for grandparents – foster and otherwise: a new study shows that both generations experience less depression when there’s a positive grandparent-grandchild relationship.)

1.The Senior Companion Program, like the first two programs on our list, is also a Senior Corps program. This one, though, is specifically about helping other seniors – particularly those elderly in the community who are homebound or frail and need help with day-to-day tasks or simply need company.

2.Seniors Helping Seniors is a program of the Senior Citizens Bureau, which provides educational resources, referrals and support services to seniors, families and caregivers. They have hundreds of volunteers who help with phone calls, e-mails, and research.

3.The International Senior Lawyers Project is perfect for retired lawyers (though you don’t have to be retired to help them out – just experienced). They provide pro bono legal support to civic groups and other non-governmental organizations, as well as to governments of developing countries, promoting human rights and social justice worldwide.

4.Road Scholar Service Learning, as their website states, “is like a ‘volunteer vacation,’ only better.” Created by Elderhostel, these programs bring the expertise of older volunteers to a variety of needy causes both in the U.S. and around the world: helping build villages and trails, teaching much-needed skills. assisting with critical conservation and preservation projects, and more.

Live Your Ideals: Volunteering Directly for a Cause