Boomers' volunteer rates surpass other generations'

March 19, 2011 

Every Tuesday, Andrea Downs takes two buses and a train from her home to the public library in downtown Miami. There, the retired teacher with a master's degree in education tutors a woman who never attended school in her native Haiti.

"I do it because I enjoy it," Downs said. "I feel I'm improving the life of another person and in the end I get back as much as I give."

Downs, 63, is typical of the 78 million-strong baby boomer generation that, for the most part, still wants to change the world. Forty years after marching on Washington and staging sit-ins on campuses, they're turning their attention to homeless shelters, literacy programs, animal rescue organizations, arts cooperatives -- anything that sparks a passion.

And they're doing it more than anyone else. About 33 percent of all boomers -- those born between 1946 and 1964 -- volunteer on a regular basis, the highest rate of any generational group and four percentage points above the national average of 28.8 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The volunteer rate for young boomers, ages 46 to 57, is 30.9 percent, significantly higher than the 25.3 percent recorded by the same age group in 1974 and the 23.2 percent recorded in 1989.

"This goes along with the idealistic, change-the-world feelings of their youth," said Yolanda Rodriguez, who serves on the executive council of AARP in Florida. "For many, it's about pursuing a lifelong passion."

This is true for Downs. As a teacher, she believes an education can be life-changing. When she worked, she always volunteered for committees at school. In retiring two years ago, she wanted to continue that commitment to her community but in a different setting. So when a librarian friend told her about Miami-Dade County Public Library's Project L.E.A.D. (Literacy for Every Adult in Dade), she immediately called them.

Like so many other facets of society they have influenced, boomers want to make the biggest splash possible wherever they donate their time. Instead of stuffing envelopes, they prefer to offer professional, managerial and marketing talent.

"Boomers," said Robert Rosenthal, a spokesman for VolunteerMatch.org, an online service that helps connect volunteers and causes, "are like other generations in their desire to help people, but the ways they want to help are different."

Baby boomers "look for organizations to partner with. It's all about sharing the skills they've acquired over a lifetime," he said.

Robert Holloman, of Miramar, Fla., retired from the U.S. Postal Service in 2009. During his almost 30 years there, the former Marine and father of three managed to volunteer in the youth mentoring program at his church as well as at his sons' youth sports leagues. Raised by an aunt who was a school principal and fierce advocate of giving back, Holloman, 63, believed "you have to walk the walk if you're going to talk the talk."

With children grown and hours to spare, he wanted to continue giving back. At the suggestion of a fraternity brother, he began working in the mail room of Camillus House, a full-service organization helping the homeless in Miami. Using his knowledge as a letter carrier and supervisor, he immediately organized the mail room, starting a system that guarantees safe storage and distribution of hundreds of letters, bills, checks and court orders that arrive for the homeless who use Camillus as a permanent postal address.

Three days a week, he helps sort and purge the mail, storing it alphabetically in bins.

"I'm a Christian," Holloman said, "and I've learned that if you want to be great, you must be a server."

Matching volunteer talent with the right kind of work is a win on both sides, said Thomas Endres, vice president for civic engagement at the National Council on Aging. Boomers want volunteer projects with a mission, not a task.

"They want autonomy," Endres says. "They don't want to reinvent the wheel, but they want assignments with responsibilities and authority to get it done."

Whether it's to carry on a family tradition or to reconnect with youthful passions, boomers also seem to understand that volunteering is good for the heart -- figuratively and literally. Studies have shown that even small amounts of volunteering contribute to healthy aging because of the social interaction and the physical activity involved.

Erwin Tan, a physician and geriatrician, is director of Senior Corps, a government group that connects people 55 and older with community organizations that need help. When patients complain they feel sluggish, disconnected and without purpose, he suggests they volunteer.

"It keeps you sharp," he said. "It's an excellent way of keeping mentally engaged. Having a purpose in life, having a reason to get up in the morning, is good for one's health."

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