As one year ends and another begins, many Mainers will contemplate making a New Year’s resolution. This contemporary tradition has deep roots, dating back 4,000 years or so to the times of the ancient Babylonians, as they sought to curry favor with the gods by breaking with bad habits and vowing to lead a more exemplary life.
Despite widespread skepticism, some research shows that making a resolution increases the likely success of self-improvement ambitions. But with the aging of America, the shrinking of the middle class, deepening social and environmental concerns and flat-lined operational budgets, many groups hope that Maine baby boomers and seniors will consider volunteering for a worthy cause in 2017.
“There are so many benefits,” Janelle Wuoristo, community impact manager for United Way of Eastern Maine, said. “You can make your community a better place. You make new friends, learn new skills and reduce stress and isolation.”
In addition, she said, for boomers still in the paid workforce and looking to beef up a resume, a volunteer activity can bump an older job applicant right up to the front of the line.
On the UWEM volunteer website, Mainers can explore opportunities for home handymen (and women), Meals on Wheels drivers and personal mentors for young people who have committed crimes. The Ronald McDonald House in Bangor, which houses the families of children receiving medical care at Eastern Maine Medical Center, is looking for weekend breakfast chefs. The Belfast and Moosehead Lake Railway needs an event coordinator.
The Telephone Museum in Ellsworth could use a few workers to clear walking trails and help move unspecified “heavy metal objects.” Volunteers are needed to organize a winter carnival, sit in an art gallery and read books to preschoolers. Organizations such as Girl Scouts and Big Brothers Big Sisters have multiple posting for volunteers across UWEM’s five-county service area. The listings go on and on — about 230 of them at this time.
Boomers have important skills and experience to contribute, Wuoristo said. As they approach retirement or cut back their regular work hours, many are glad to explore new ways to interact with their communities. But, she cautioned, people who are new to volunteering are sometimes caught off-guard by organizational needs, which may include a background security check, a health exam and sometimes, a regular schedule of duties and responsibilities.
“More and more organizations are treating volunteers like unpaid staff members,” she said. While some volunteers may chafe at the commitment, others find it reassuring to know their place in the organizational structure and look forward to being part of the team.
At the Maine Commission for Community Service, a state government agency that administers and supports federal volunteer programs such as AmeriCorps and Senior Corps, executive director Maryalice Crofton said senior volunteers benefit from the experience as much as the communities they serve.
In addition to studies showing that volunteer work and community engagement help maintain mental, physical and emotional health in advancing age, she said, “volunteering in service gives people a chance to get to know others they might not cross paths with otherwise.” Discovering connections and commonalities with people who are culturally or ideologically different from us and overcoming stereotypes about them is an important aspect of community-building, she said.
“Really, what we need in our communities is to have everybody involved in some way,” she said.
Federally funded programs like VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), RSVP (Retired Senior and Volunteer Program), Senior Companions and Foster Grandparents provide baby boomers with important opportunities to serve individuals, families and communities. Some include a small personal stipend or a financial award to be applied toward education expenses. Opportunities with these programs are listed on the commission’s website.
Other volunteer opportunities in Maine, even for seasonal residents, are available directly through local organizations, including hospitals, schools, libraries, land trusts and other groups. The University of Maine Center on Aging’s Encore Leadership program provides training and support for volunteers and organizations across the state.
According to Volunteer Maine, which complies and analyzes data on volunteer activity here, as well as listing opportunities, trainings and other resources, Maine ranks 11th highest in the nation for the percentage of adult residents who volunteer in one capacity or another.
About 345,300 Mainers of all ages volunteered in 2015, up from 336,570 in 2014. About 31 percent of Mainers 55-74 participated in the volunteer workforce in 2015.