Helping baby boomers reinvent themselves through volunteer work.
Even before she became an empty nester, Harrison’s Susie Siegel had always been involved in her community as a volunteer. Now that her three children are grown and she had moved past the PTA and Hebrew school stage, Siegel was eager to find other ways to deploy her talents.
Her increasing involvement at the Rosenthal JCC of Northern Westchester led to her “natural progression,” as Siegel put it, with a new initiative: Engage Jewish Service Corps. “I went to talk with Debra [Cerbini, community outreach organizer for the program], and she said, ‘What do you love to do?’” said Siegel, who is also a volunteer leader with Engage. “‘I said ‘I love to sing,’ and that’s how Engage in Song was born.’” The group sings at a local camp and nursing homes.
That’s precisely how Engage is meant to work. An initiative of UJA-Federation of New York, Engage Jewish Service Corps is a metro-area project, based at 10 locations, specifically targeting baby boomers who want to have a significant impact with their volunteer efforts. In Westchester, besides the Rosenthal JCC, the other agencies taking part in Engage are the JCC of Mid-Westchester and the JCC on the Hudson. The Rosenthal JCC has about 130 registered volunteers, with a core group of about 30.
“What makes this unique is targeting of the boomer community, whose members have skills, talents, time and a passion to give back,” Cerbini said. “It’s about matching opportunities to volunteers’ desires. We’re trying to respond to the volunteers and to be as creative and responsive as possible.”
As Ellie Aronowitz, executive director of the Rosenthal JCC said, “Boomers have lots of choices. It’s a sophisticated population, with the capacity to do a lot in retirement. They want to feel that their time is spent well.”
Through Engage, these volunteers are part of a communal project and can “engage with vulnerable communities,” said Aronowitz. “They provide much needed volunteer capacity within many Jewish communities, especially with the Jewish elderly.”
Programs available through the Rosenthal JCC include driving Holocaust survivors to speaking engagements; helping to refurbish a Rockland County camp for children with cancer and their siblings; sorting children’s clothes for families in need; working with special needs children in an athletic league; knitting projects and providing rides for medical appointments and errands to older adults in the community.
Activities at the JCC of Mid-Westchester have included a food drive and knitting program, and planting at the JCC.
“This has made a meaningful difference in Westchester, not only to the volunteers, but to the community,” said Karen Spar Kasner, a member of Mid-Westchester’s Engage Leadership Advisory Committee. “Baby boomers want to look for some meaning at this stage in life, and finding volunteer opportunities, on an individual basis or collectively, is done with Engage. Everyone is so excited about doing the projects.”
Beyond the good works the volunteers produce, Engage is also beneficial for its volunteers, said Alex Roth-Kahn, managing director, Caring Commission, for UJA-Federation of New York. “Due to longevity, boomers are living healthy and living longer. Some are leaving the workforce earlier than anticipated,” she said. “They have a desire to be involved and to work in civic causes as agents of change. This creates the pathways to make a difference.”
“This is about understanding the assets and skills the volunteer pool would like to contribute, and how to transition their skills set to volunteer service,” he added.
Lauren Rothschild Epstein, planning manager, Caring Commission, for UJA-Federation of New York, said that the social component is significant. “One of the primary goals of Engage is to redefine the role of older adults, so they feel more included in the community. There’s bonding among one another. As they make new friends, they’re more inclined to go back and continue to volunteer.”
That’s clearly a benefit for participants like Siegel.
“If I’m volunteering, I have to really enjoy the people I’m volunteering with,” said Siegel. “I’m comfortable [enough] with the group in Engage to express my voice. Engage has not only given me a place to volunteer, but [also] given me a social element. That’s really important.”
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