When I sit at my computer day after day, I interact with a lot of people. Someone “likes” a comment I posted on Facebook. Someone else leaves a comment on a blog post that I wrote. Yet another person accepts a trade in an online game that I’ve been playing. Then one day it just struck me – all of these interactions on the internet are with people whose voices I will never hear, faces I will never see, and hands I will never shake. Where has the interpersonal contact gone, now that I no longer have a full-time job with coworkers, staff meetings, and after-work drinks? That’s where volunteering in retirement can play a critical role in our daily lives.
Where Do You Hang Out?
Don’t get me wrong. I have a supportive family life, a small but loyal circle of friends, and I do get of out the house on a regular basis to go to restaurants, shows, exhibits, concerts, and so on. And of course there are the aforementioned electronic interactions that I have on a daily basis. But what about a physical place where I can collaborate with my fellow human beings – in the flesh – to produce something meaningful and personally satisfying?
What I have done more and more since retiring from my full-time job is to find useful projects and organizations where I can volunteer my time and talents. And unlike the corporate world where you may sometimes be “volun-told” to do something for the community, now I am completely in charge. That in itself is inspiring to me.
My first steps in volunteering since my retirement involved my stepson’s school. Through that organization, I found a variety of activities that I could choose to not only support his school, but also demonstrate the importance of volunteer work to the next generation. I did some administrative work, and also some community service work at a local thrift store.
There’s a funny story behind the thrift store work. As I was sorting magazines and dusting shelves, one of the other volunteers came up to me and quietly asked, “So, what did you do to wind up here?” Apparently many of the other volunteers were working out their court-ordered time for various infractions. I smiled and replied, “I became a stepmother.” The look on her face was priceless. Of course, I went on to fill in the rest of the details, but her question made a big impression on me. Is this what our society has come to? We only volunteer when a judge tells us to? It’s a sad state of affairs, and one that I hope to change in my own small way.
Speaking of small, you may want to treat your first volunteer gig as a learning experience, rather than making a major commitment. Use it to find out what you like, and what you don’t like with a short-term project. That way you can move on gracefully if it doesn’t work out.
One Place to Start
There is one organization that is specifically aimed at people 55 and over. The program is RSVP (Retired and Senior Volunteer Program), and it works at matching skilled individuals with organizations who need them. Because they are one of the largest volunteer networks for people 55 and over, and because of their vetting process, pre-service orientation and training, it’s a good place to start for individuals who haven’t done much volunteering in the past.
With RSVP, you can choose how, where, and how often you want to serve. You can commit to a few hours, or even 40 hours per week if you wish. Also, there is a wide variety of service opportunities, from organizing neighborhood watch programs to assisting victims of natural disasters. While you won’t receive a salary, you may be reimbursed for some of your costs that you incur in the course of your volunteer service. You may also receive supplemental insurance while on duty.
Other Things to Consider
Here is a short list of other things you will need to consider before embarking on your volunteer gig:
- What is your ultimate goal? Are you searching for a sense of community without much thought to the mission of the volunteer organization? Or perhaps you are using your volunteering to ultimately locate a paid position down the road, so the organization’s purpose will play a key role.
- Do you have a particular cause that motivates you? Keep in mind that there’s something out there for everyone, from working with homeless pets to becoming a host family for an international exchange student. Make a list of issues that move you, and use that as a place to start your search.
- How much time can you reasonably devote to your volunteering activity? It’s best to look at your other life commitments, and come up with a number of available hours, before you find yourself overextended.
- Do you want to volunteer locally, or would you like to travel? Again, there are many different opportunities out there, so answering this question truthfully will not limit you.
The more information you have up front, the more likely you will find a successful fit. You might consider shadowing another volunteer, or interviewing the head honcho to get a sense of compatibility. And don’t be afraid to change your mind a few times before you settle on what you want to do. As with most things in life, the more effort you put into it up front, the more likely you will get what you want and need from the experience. So get out there, and get your feet wet! Volunteering may be just what you need to thrive in retirement, but you won’t know until you try!