Award-Winning AARP Volunteer Nancy Crespo Values the Social Side of Volunteering

Posted on 01/23/20

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AARP Community Ambassador Nancy Crespo moved to Manassas, Virginia, three years ago after a varied career as a biology researcher, science teacher, and high school counselor and administrator. In November 2019 she was one of three volunteers to receive AARP Virginia’s President’s Award for Community Service, which recognized the recipients’ significant contributions to the work of AARP Virginia over the past year. I spoke with Nancy at The Swiss Bakery in Springfield, Virginia. Our conversation has been edited for length.

Where did you grow up and what was your career before you retired?
I lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where my dad was a steel mill worker, until I was in second or third grade. Then my mom got homesick and we moved to Puerto Rico to be near my grandma. I went to high school in Puerto Rico and, when I wanted to go to college, my father did not allow me to leave the island or to go to the capital, San Juan, to study. After I finished my Associate’s Degree at a local community college, I said, “Ok, do I stop studying or are you going to let me go?” He let me go to the capital and I finished my Bachelor’s Degree in biology. Later on, I married and obtained a Master’s Degree in Biology. I wanted to do research.
Some years later, in 1989, I came to New York City as a single mom with three kids. In Puerto Rico I was a college biology professor; I thought I could come to the United States and continue my biology research, but it was tough with three kids. So I went into public education, teaching science. I loved teaching, but I was in a school district that was very, very poor. My students would tell me, “Miss, I love science but I’m too hungry to think.” That was really sad. They needed counseling and there were no bilingual counselors. I was lucky to be able to work as a bilingual counselor and later as Assistant Principal for Counseling. I continued studying and obtained two Masters Degrees, in Counseling Psychology and in Administration, from New York University. A former colleague had received his doctorate from NYU and that’s where I wanted to go until I found out the ticket price! I was blessed that I found a scholarship and was able to study there.
Three years ago, after I retired, my husband and I moved from New York City to Manassas to be closer to my children. My two sons, who were previously in the military, work at Andrews Air Force Base in Camp Springs, Maryland, as helicopter mechanic crew chiefs. And my daughter had a knack for math and now she is a high school math teacher in Manassas.

When did you start volunteering for AARP?
I started volunteering in January 2017. When I lived in New York City, I volunteered with my church, teaching religion. I wanted to do something different, so I went to “Create the Good” (createthegood.aarp.org) to look for organizations that offered volunteering opportunities. Most of the options that interested me had specific requirements for their volunteers – what days, what times – and I wasn’t looking for that. I have several grandchildren and at the drop of a hat I take care of them, so I wanted flexibility.
Then I realized that I could volunteer for AARP itself, and that the options were very flexible. I had been an AARP member since before I was 50 because my husband joined, and I had always read the magazine and gone on the web site for information. When I went to a meeting of Northern Virginia volunteers, I saw everyone talking and organizing – it was like machinery rolling along. I liked it and I said: “Yeah, I could do this.” I can sign up for the times that I’m available; if I can’t do it on one day, I can do it on another.

What do you do as an AARP volunteer?
At first, I thought I might want to be a speaker, because I used to do a lot of speaking events for my work. AARP Northern Virginia has a very active Speakers Bureau whose members give free presentations about topics like Medicare, Social Security, frauds and scams, brain health, and so on. That sounded interesting, but you want to change and do something different with your life! So I do “tabling,” which is staffing the registration and information tables at AARP events; I do the scheduling for the Northern Virginia Speakers Bureau; and I organize “Movies for Grownups” in Manassas, which are free movie screenings in local movie theaters, and the Manassas Dinner Group, a monthly social dinner at City Grille. [To request a group presentation by a member of the AARP Speakers Bureau in Northern Virginia, email aarpva@aarp.org or call 866-542-8164.]

What skills from your profession carried over into your volunteering?
Communications and organizing. You have to be very organized if you’re going to be a counselor for so many kids. And like many teachers, I’m a social creature. I wanted a change from teaching, though, so rather than volunteer with teenagers I decided to volunteer with adults.

What do you enjoy most about your AARP volunteering?
What I like the most about volunteering is that I get to meet people. As a former counselor, I like to listen to what people have to say. And, many times, people our age don’t have that opportunity to talk to somebody. Just to talk to somebody who will listen to them.
That’s one of the reasons I love volunteering at the Dinner Groups, where people get together to socialize over a meal. The first time I helped organize a Dinner Group, I was amazed at the need for people simply to converse with an adult. Many of them may be taking care of grandchildren, but that’s talking to kids. They need adult time, talking with other adults.

How often do you volunteer for AARP?
As often as I can. When we are in the heavy season, I volunteer several times a week. Now I’m heavy into scheduling; people are calling because they want Speakers Bureau presentations in the spring. Later on, it becomes heavier in terms of doing tabling, and I organize the Dinner Group every month in Manassas.
There are a lot of AARP activities in Northern Virginia. For example, there are also dinner groups in McLean, Alexandria, and Woodbridge. Events are posted on AARP’s web site and Facebook page, media outlets like Patch.com, and elsewhere. And if people don’t want to look for events, they can opt-in to our emails and get the information in their inbox.

What would you say to other people about volunteering for AARP?
I would say that AARP volunteers are doing such a good job helping other people, but at the same time it’s so rewarding to the volunteer. Because you feel like you’re still counting, you’re still giving input on society and trying to make things better. For example, when you talk about fraud or caregiving, many times you give people information they did not know, were not aware of, and that makes their life a little bit easier.

How is your life different than that of your parents?
With my parents, there was a pattern that once you become a certain age, you retire and that’s it – you stay in the house. And you don’t do much. There was never the thought that you continue to be productive and actively involved. The only involvement would be taking care of the grandkids, but there’s more to life than taking care of the grandkids.

What’s your philosophy of aging?
I think we adapt our philosophy of aging as time goes by. If you would have asked my philosophy of aging when I was growing up, it would have been very different. Now, I believe that we have to embrace all the advances in medicine and technology. If we need a new knee, let’s go for the new knee. If we need a new eye, let’s go for the new eye. Why suffer pains when there are remedies? And I think we just have to continue to enjoy what we can, when we can.

What should young people know about the positive side of aging?
The positive side of aging is that the calendar is much easier to manage – many of us are able to work when we want to or not work at all. When you’re young and working, you rarely have time to enjoy things. On weekends my husband and I were avid gardeners, but I would always say “Stop and smell the roses! Look at this beautiful sky, at the flowers we’re going to produce,” because otherwise it all becomes work. It’s the same thing when you’re raising a child. Sometimes you have the rat race, taking them to practice, getting them back home to do homework, and you don’t get to really enjoy it. And they grow up fast. When you’re older, you have more time to enjoy what’s around you.

What do you do for fun, other than volunteering for AARP?
My husband and I live in kind of a rural area, with two and a quarter acres of land and a pond that we built for koi and a catfish we transported from New York. We raised those fish and, when we sold our house in New York, I didn’t want to leave them because not everyone can handle caring for them. We had to investigate and study how to transport fish with our truck. We were lucky that we moved in April, because the fish sleep over the winter and they hadn’t woken up yet. The moment they wake up, they’re hungry!
So, in addition to watching grandchildren, I spend time taking care of our flowers and our vegetable garden and tending to our pond and our fish. I wrote my Biology Masters’ thesis about an orchid that grows in Puerto Rico. I wanted to find out what pollinates it, because Puerto Rico does not have a lot of insect or animal pollinators. I found that it is pollinated by rain. Now I’m planting more native plants at our home, especially plants like butterfly bush that attract pollinators. I’ve always had an interest in butterflies, and last year I finally had a monarch butterfly caterpillar come out in my yard.

You recently received AARP Virginia’s President’s Award. Can you tell me about that?
Three of us received the President’s Award in November 2019. It was a big surprise. Thank goodness I got a letter at my house before the awards ceremony, because I started crying right then and there. Crying like a baby, because it was so unexpected.
I really admire all my fellow volunteers who work so hard to help others. As I said at the awards banquet, they’re my heroes and together we’re rewriting what retirement looks like – a life with continued purpose and hope for all our futures.
One thing that surprised me when I started volunteering for AARP was the age of the fellow volunteers: 70, 75, 80, 85. I want to grow up to be just like that! They are so full of life and enjoyment. I think it’s the fact that you remain in touch with so many people, and people who are happy, because we are a happy bunch.

This story is provided by AARP Virginia. Visit the AARP Virginia page for more news, events, and programs affecting retirement, health care, and more.

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