John Urbigkit earned a Purple Heart for his service in the Korean War. But the military veteran and retired chemist recently received another honor: a Jefferson Award for Public Service for his Senior Corps volunteer work as a foster grandparent and science tutor.
Working with the Southeast Wyoming Foster Grandparent Program, Urbigkit, who is known to students as "Grandpa John," loves helping out kids. He and his wife (who is also a foster grandparent) credit volunteering with keeping him patient.
During 2011, Senior Corps volunteers served more than 96 million hours, helping out 300,000 young people, as well as 700,000 elderly people.
*Find the Right Opportunities
You don't have to be young to volunteer.
"There's a volunteer opportunity for everyone," explains Samantha Jo Warfield of the Corporation for National and Community Service, the independent federal agency that runs Senior Corps. "Americans can serve at all ages."
Robert Rosenthal of VolunteerMatch, a national nonprofit that helps volunteers and organizations come together to do good deeds in the community, agrees, saying, "There are lots of ways older adults can find volunteer opportunities, make new friends and contribute."
Local schools and libraries are always looking for volunteers, as are health organizations such as hospitals, hospice and nursing homes. For example, St. Jude Children's Research Hospital has volunteer opportunities all over the United States. The Federal Bureau of Prisons needs volunteers to help with programs such as counseling and vocational training.
*Seniors in Service
Volunteering helps nonprofits and community groups that are struggling with a lack of funding and employees.
Luckily, almost 22 million baby boomers (who were born between 1946 and 1964) and older Americans are volunteering to help these groups, with activities including tutoring, fundraising and mentoring. Senior Corps has the volunteer help of 330,000 Americans who are older than 55. Volunteers can work as part of the Foster Grandparent Program, the Senior Companion Program or RSVP.
"Foster grandparents help the teachers in the classroom," Warfield says. "They are an extra set of eyes and an extra set of hands."
In the Senior Companion Program, seniors help other seniors with things like picking up prescriptions at the drug store and planning meals for the week. "By serving other seniors, they're helping these people stay independent," explains Warfield.
Senior RSVP volunteers do a variety of tasks, such as helping out after disasters and building ramps for the disabled.
A trend in volunteer service? Skill-based volunteering, which can range from people handy with tools to retired accountants who help nonprofits do their taxes.
"Leverage skills, abilities and talents to maximize the benefit for the nonprofit," says Warfield.
Rosenthal says baby boomers enjoy using their talents to tackle volunteer projects. "Boomers are much more enthusiastic about getting things done, learning new skills or using skills they spent the past 30 years perfecting in the workplace," he says.
Older volunteers may find volunteering a challenge, especially if they don't have the agility or flexibility to do physically active projects like building furniture. Some might not be a good match for organizations looking for high-tech volunteers with advanced computer skills.
Still there are plenty of other worthy volunteer opportunities.
"Phone work is a really great match," says Rosenthal, explaining that many seniors enjoy the social aspect of volunteering. "Light activity coupled with social activity is very favorable."
Many seniors are helping out without even leaving their homes.
"There's a huge demand out there for arts and crafts, like knitting," explains Rosenthal, noting that craft items are generally made for hospitals, people in at-risk developing communities and military families. Volunteers can craft these items on their own time and then give them to the groups organizing the efforts. "Figure out a way to take activities you're already doing and find a nonprofit that benefits from that," Rosenthal says.
Volunteering can also be good for your health.
A 2010 VolunteerMatch/UnitedHealthcare "Do Good, Live Well" study found that 68 percent of volunteers agreed that "volunteering has made me feel physically healthier," while 73 percent of volunteers agreed that "volunteering lowers my stress levels."
Volunteering can be personally satisfying, but it's a commitment, too. Before you sign up, Rosenthal advises asking yourself how much time you can give to an organization.