Volunteer program gives seniors new life

By: Nick Mordowanec | C&G Newspapers | Published May 24, 2017


METRO DETROIT — In the journey of life, fulfillment tends to arrive at different stages.

For some, that expedition may result in a grinding halt — especially for those in their older age who are in post-retirement and are seeking something new in the realm of personal joy.

Volunteerism may be the answer, or just one answer. Through organizations such as Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan, the rewarding experience of volunteering — whether it’s with kids or other seniors — can brighten numerous lives.

Trista Johnson is a senior outreach worker for Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan. More specifically, her duty relates to the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program, or RSVP, to find local volunteers who can offer their time and experience to aid others.

The program is free under the guidance of the federal government. Volunteering opportunities — such as helping out at local schools, taking home-stricken seniors to doctor appointments or helping seniors with chores — are established after communicating with approximately 40 other nonprofits.

Each volunteer stipulates what he or she is looking for, and that individual is assigned based on needs, abilities and interests. If one opportunity doesn’t quite work out, another one will be sought and executed.

Johnson first became acclimated with RSVP while working at another nonprofit, and the feeling of helping others just seemed right.

“It felt like magic,” Johnson said. “It is a joy to help older adults find ways that they can find more purpose, and also help the community at the same time.”

In 2016, the program had 399 active volunteers in Oakland and Macomb counties, including 33 volunteers at Macomb Township’s school tutoring program. The tutor group is 67 percent female, the average age is 75 years old, and some volunteers devote their time well into their 90s.

Beatrice Doan, 88, of Clinton Township, is in her first year of volunteering at Shawnee Elementary. She works with first-graders who are part of teacher Allyson Champa’s class.

After working with the Macomb Literacy Group for about seven years, the evening hours took a toll on her. She told her son that she wanted to do something different to keep her busy, and tutoring became an option.

Doan, a retired teacher who has two sons, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, joked that some people can’t play cards all their life. Now she helps Champa for two hours every Thursday morning.

“Everybody is very friendly here, and the kids … well, the kids are cute,” Doan said. “They come out with some things that you can’t even believe. It’s so funny, I tell you.”

Spending time with Doan — whether it be in the form of reading books, working on writing or figuring out math equations — is a weekly thrill for the students, Champa said.

“The students feel they can show off their new skills to an attentive audience, Mrs. Bea,” Champa said. “Volunteers are a huge asset to our class, as they allow students to practice various skills in small groups.”

Marjorie Engel, 74, of Macomb Township, has volunteered for approximately nine years at Shawnee.

After originally attempting to work at Cherokee Elementary School, she never received a call back. When Shawnee inquired about her services, she signed on immediately.

She worked with third-grade teacher Marianne Caraccia for seven years, and when Caraccia left that grade level to work with kindergartners, Engel followed her.

Engel, a mother of three and grandmother of five, helps Caraccia in numerous ways: conducting, cutting and preparing for different artwork; one-on-one reading sessions; teaching words and numbers; and working with students at different group stations.

She volunteers every Thursday, from 9 a.m. to noon.

“As soon as I walked in the door, I knew kindergarten was for me,” Engel said. “The kids are so accepting. You walk in the door and they’re so happy to see you; they make you feel so welcome.

“I love working with kids who are just learning to do things. Their little eyes get so big when you teach them anything at all. They’re full of energy; they’re very polite.”

Caraccia said Engel has been “an amazing asset” to her classroom.

Beyond the work in the classroom, Engel will join students on field trips or bake them cookies. The children consider Engel to be a grandmother-type figure.

“(Engel) is kind, patient, caring, attentive and hardworking,” Caraccia said. “I can always count on her. She has been volunteering at Shawnee for many years now, and we have formed a strong bond. The children grew to adore her pretty quickly.”

The RSVP program accepts aspiring volunteers who are 55 years and older. It is continuing to branch out into Oakland County. To learn more, contact Johnson at johnsont@ccsem.org or call (248) 559-1147, ext. 3941.