November 3, 2014 by Jean
Many retirees, myself included, hope to do volunteer work as part of their mix of activities in retirement. It turns out, however, that finding the right volunteer work is not always easy. This has been a topic of discussion at the monthly lunches of my W.O.W. group. Sometimes retirees find that an organization they imagined volunteering for is not taking on new volunteers at this time. In other cases, the volunteer work that an organization has available is more stressful or time-consuming than the retiree had in mind, too much like a real job. One friend signed up for a volunteer activity that seemed like a perfect match for her, only to find that the volunteer program never got off the ground.
When I first started thinking about volunteer work, my focus was on what I wanted to get out of it (my needs):
- A regular volunteer schedule that would help provide structure to my week
- An opportunity for social interaction and to make new friends
- A chance to use some of my professional skills
As I started to get more serious about finding the right volunteer activity, however, I realized that I also needed to think about community and organization needs. After all, being a volunteer is not just about me! I had adjusted my attitude by the time I got in touch with the Good Shepherd Food Bank (the major food bank for the state of Maine and only a 10-minute drive from my house). After perusing the organization’s web site, I sent an email to the food bank’s volunteer coordinator to introduce myself, explain my interest in issues of social inequality and healthy food, and to outline my skills. I got a prompt and enthusiastic response inviting me to come to the food bank for a tour, an introduction to the kinds of volunteer opportunities available there, and a discussion about how I might contribute. I quickly learned that a food bank is not a food pantry. The food bank is a distribution center, taking in donations and distributing food to agencies and programs that then provide service to Mainers dealing with food insecurity; the organization does not itself provide direct services to clients. My tour showed me that the food bank is primarily a warehouse with a warehouse atmosphere and warehouse-type jobs that need to be done. On my tour, I could see that some jobs (e.g., one involving a fairly fast-moving conveyer belt) would not be a good fit for me. The area where I could most easily imagine myself working involves assembling packets of food commodities that are provided monthly to needy elders. The volunteer coordinator and I quickly reached an agreement that I would begin coming in weekly to work on this program, with a plan to expand my responsibilities later to add some more creative/administrative activities that will make use of my professional skills.
I have been volunteering at the food bank for three weeks now, working on assembling monthly packets of commodity foods for seniors. The area is set up in assembly-line fashion, with bins that move along rollers. Because the bins are pushed along the rollers manually, however, the pace is set by what is comfortable for those working. At the beginning of the rollers, cardboard bins are set up, each with two open paper grocery bags. At the next two stations along the rollers, the bags are filled with food – 2 boxes of breakfast cereal, 2 bottles of fruit juice, several cans of vegetables and fruits, some kind of canned meat, a jar of peanut butter, and a package of either rice or pasta. At the fourth station, the contents of each bag are double-checked and the bags are taped shut. At the final station, bags are removed from the bins and loaded onto pallets. I have been going in on Wednesdays. Tuesdays are a hectic day with many community volunteers, while Wednesday is a much more relaxed day with a few regulars. Because the pace is relaxed, there is an opportunity to chat with the other workers, and it’s also easy to switch from one station to another as the need arises. The work is physical enough to make me pleasantly tired, but not so much as to leave me exhausted or with aching, strained muscles. I’m finding that a shift of about 2 1/2 hours works well for me.
For now, this is perfect for me. It helps to give me a regular schedule, but isn’t too demanding. (I could change my schedule because of a conflict without it causing a disruption to the program.) I’ve had an opportunity to start getting to know a couple of the other volunteers as well as the paid staffer in charge of the area where the food packets are assembled. I will probably wait until the new year to discuss adding new volunteer responsibilities that make use of my professional skills.