Tonawanda News

June 1, 2014

Sought-after 60s: Youngest seniors are coveted by area volunteer groups

Youngest seniors are coveted by area volunteer groups

By Michele DeLuca michele.deluca@tonawanda-news.com
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — Some days there’s simply not enough volunteers to deliver meals to shut-ins.

So Lori Gantt, program director for Meals on Wheels of Niagara, gets into her car and delivers them herself.

“I always have a few routes open every week,” she said, adding she has a crew of about 75 volunteers, but its dwindling. She could use about 15 more.

“Some of my volunteers have been doing it for 44 years since the day we started,” Gantt said. “Unfortunately, they have to retire.” Her volunteer cook, who comes in every day at 6:30 a.m. to make lunch and dinners for shut-ins, is 88 years old.  

Like many volunteer-dependent organizations in the region, she’s looking for “younger” volunteers. It’s the 60-year-olds that everybody wants, but many of them are far too busy.

The reason for the need, is that the Greatest Generation —  from the World War II era when the men worked and the women volunteered — are aging out of the ranks of the local volunteer corps, leaving a need for more helping hands in the organizations that depend on them.

It’s not just a local problem. At a statewide convention for directors of volunteer programs, it was clear that volunteer numbers are lower everywhere.

“Everybody has the same issue,” said Judy Villani, director of volunteers for Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center, who attended the four-day convention held at the Sheraton. 

Villani said many volunteers are working part-time jobs for extra income, or care-taking for family members, including grandchildren and great grandchildren.   

“A lot of them are pulled in many directions,” she added of her volunteers, noting that churches, clubs and other civic organizations are short on funds and relying on volunteer manpower.   

While volunteer numbers are down only about 10 percent at NFMMC, Villani said the need has been filled by an increasing number of volunteers provided by Western New York high schools and colleges, many of whom have students who must fill community service requirements.  

But it’s the older, more committed volunteers who really make up the difference for area organizations. And the place to find them is among the newly retired men and women who finally have a little time and freedom. But many are just too busy.

“The Baby Boomers for the most part aren’t coming in,” said Priscilla Dolling, manager for the volunteer center at HANCI, a health and human service agency, which runs programs such as the Foster Grandparent Program and the Senior Companion program. “We’re constantly trying to get new people to fill the needs — which are great,” she said.

Over at Habitat for Humanity, where volunteers help to build homes for deserving families, there always seem to be enough volunteers to hammer a nail. It’s the behind-the-scenes work that is wanting, said spokesperson Cassandra Lewis. 

“We usually have a good amount of volunteers that want to come to the job site because we get college groups and church groups,” she said. “But it’s the day-to-day operations on the committees where we could really use the help.”

Some non-profits are luckier than others. A spokesperson for Niagara Hospice said the volunteer numbers have been steady. And the Lewiston Council on the Arts, which uses lots of volunteers, particularly for its Lewiston Art Festival, has a bounty of loyal volunteers.

“Everybody wants to volunteer at the Lewiston Art Festival,” said Eva Nicklas, council spokeswoman. “It finally got to the point we realized its such a coveted position ... so we made a decision that anybody who wants to volunteer at the Lewiston Art Festival has to be a member of the Arts Council.

“That’s something very special we can give our members, because everybody wants to do it.”

While most volunteers find that community service has its own rewards, it certainly doesn’t hurt to have perks.

At Arpark, volunteers work as ushers often get to watch events for free. And if they usher at other events such as graduations and dance recitals, they can get a voucher for a free ticket to other events. 

“We’re getting a lot of new volunteers for the Tuesday in the Park music series,” said volunteer director Rosemary Dann, but her volunteer numbers are down about 10 percent. “We can always use more people to help out with matinees, or to man the information booth or the art gallery store.”  

While every volunteer director interviewed had the highest praise for their volunteers, they are all casting about for new ones.

Artpark’s Dann is a volunteer herself at the gift shop at Mount St. Mary’s Hospital in Lewiston. She quoted John Kennedy when asked about her own volunteer efforts.

“I always think of John Kennedy,” she said. “He said, ‘ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.’ ”

Contact reporter Michele DeLuca at 282-2311, ext. 2263 or email: michele.deluca@niagara-gazette.com.