By Sheila Burke
When Gloria Thomas saw that AARP Tennessee was seeking volunteers, she thought she would be some type of a greeter.
But AARP had other ideas for the former hospital human resources executive and Memphis resident, who turns 64 this month. The organization wanted her to help others file their taxes through the AARP Foundation Tax-Aide program.
Intimidated at first—she was used to doing only her own taxes—Thomas got lots of training and confidence and eventually became the Shelby County area district coordinator for Tax-Aide.
The work of helping old and young alike file their taxes couldn’t be more rewarding, Thomas said.
“I wanted to do something where I can interact with people and know that I am touching their lives,” Thomas said. “That’s why I do it.”
She credits her volunteer spirit to a grandmother who was always helping people in need.
Sarah White found that volunteering with AARP was a good transition from a busy professional life—in which she had enjoyed close friendships with colleagues—to retirement. Formerly executive director of school nutrition for the state Department of Education, the Lebanon resident, 70, is now an AARP volunteer leader.
White is a member of several strategy teams that help decide how AARP in Middle Tennessee should focus on areas such as caregiving, veterans, communications and membership.
Her work has included participating in a weeklong veterans homecoming in partnership with the city of Clarksville. She has helped get free film screenings for AARP’s Movies for Grownups, and to present educational and training programs for caregivers—sessions, she said, that always end with tears from people who are grateful for the support and understanding.
“That’s when we know we’re really making a difference,” White said.
Volunteers like Thomas and White are the lifeblood of AARP, as there are just eight paid staff members in the state, said Stacy Pennington, AARP Tennessee community outreach director.
The state has a small army of volunteers (about 1,000) to carry out AARP’s mission.
“Volunteers are critical to the work that we do,” Pennington said. “They are the ones who make the impact in communities, by offering the services to our members, families and friends.”
Only about a third are retired. Volunteers can give as little or as much time as they want, Pennington said. They can sign up for fun events like fairs and festivals or Movies for Grownups, or take on something a bit more challenging.
That’s what Mitchell Olszewski, 70, of Knoxville, has done. He serves on six boards as an AARP representative. His work includes helping the cities of Knoxville and Chattanooga become part of the AARP Network of Age-Friendly Communities.
He is also helping AARP partner with the East Tennessee Area Agency on Aging and Disability to create a website that will serve as a clearinghouse for caregiver resources in Knoxville. Olszewski said he averages about 15 hours a week with his volunteer work, though he admited some weeks can prove more demanding of his time.
“This isn’t work for me, quite frankly,” he said. “It energizes me and I want to do more. I believe in what we’re doing. I believe that what we’re doing has a very strong potential to make a positive difference in our community.”
Sheila Burke is a writer living in Nashville.
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