It has been said that volunteers are not paid not because they are worthless, but because they are priceless. There are countless quotes celebrating the impact of that wonderful resource known as volunteers, but what of the folks who focus on inspiring, organizing and offering them meaningful experiences that bring value not only to the recipients of such services but to the volunteers themselves?
Jill Thomsen, Volunteer Specialist at the Culver City Senior Center for the past six years, is one of those behind-the-scenes folks. Funding through an RSVP (Retired and Senior Volunteer Program) grant provided her with a recent opportunity to meet once again with many of her peers at the National Conference on Volunteering and Service, when over 5,000 leaders from the service sector came together in Chicago June 16 – 20, the city where this conference was first held in 1992, to create new ideas for service, discuss challenges and work together to create solutions.
RSVP is a nationwide volunteer program that will mark its 40th anniversary in Culver City in 2013, according to Thomsen, whose records reflect 416 active RSVP volunteers. RSVP enables those who are 55 and over to use their life experience and skills to benefit their communities through a variety of volunteer activities, some of which include mentoring and tutoring children, distributing food, teaching the Internet to other seniors, assisting at events and providing support to nonprofits, depending on specific local needs.
The conference Thomsen attended covered a wide array of topics valuable to those who work with volunteers. Convened by Points of Light, its message focused on being at a turning point in the service sector and in the world at large, and how to use the abundance of human capital to address the critical challenges of these times.
Sessions dealt with such matters as skill-building activities for youth leaders; effective use of social media; environmental sustainability; employee volunteer programs; reintegrating the knowledge, skills and experience of returning veterans into civilian life and continued service to the country; generating dollars for nonprofits through a variety of connections; maximizing the potential of volunteers, including those with disabilities; boosting graduation rates and increasing academic performance and, essentially, how to create positive changes through volunteer actions and strengthen communities through citizen service.
Thomsen found the conference especially valuable for the opportunities it gave her to meet and talk with her peers throughout the country, and learn the methods they’ve innovated and incorporated in order to handle the challenges they face. “It gets your creative juices going,” she commented, and mentioned that, utilizing a concept she came across at a previous conference, she has implemented a pilot program that is now in place at City Hall.
“They were talking about Experience Corps at that earlier conference,” she explained, “and a new trend called ‘skilled volunteers’ where you organize pro bono professional services that are matched up with a need in a local nonprofit or government entity. So, I recruited people with appropriate skills to be in City Hall Corps, already in its first month of existence and going well so far!”
Under the auspices of the Parks, Recreation & Community Services Department, Thomsen is Culver City’s go-to person for those seeking volunteers and for volunteers of all ages seeking opportunities to serve. Activities including computer lab, open lab, Wednesday work project, Wednesday crochet group, the singers and dancers that entertain at nursing homes, and questions from business desk and information desk volunteers are some of the areas that come under her specific purview.
“I’m also working on creating a teen volunteer directory and updating the city volunteer directory that I created and countless other things such as Fiesta La Ballona coming up, special events coming up, etc.” she added.
Thomsen expressed her appreciation for the support received from Armando Abrego, Senior & Social Services Manager, and, emphasizing that “no man is an island,” lauded the collaborative efforts of her colleagues at the center, to whom she makes applicable referrals: Roxana Tabibi, Senior Nutrition Specialist; Debbie Cahill, Senior Program Specialist; and Darren Uhl, Disability & Social Services Specialist.
A very brief sampling of their responsibilities includes home-delivered meals and telephone reassurance to homebound seniors, plus serving 100+ people lunch daily Monday through Friday (Tabibi); activities, parties, events, classes and entertainment (Cahill); and social services, disability services, Friendly Visitors (in-home volunteer visits), resource information and support groups (Uhl).
Thomsen’s long list of daily calls embraces a broad spectrum of needs, and can include someone who wants to get out of the house and be of help, someone who doesn’t understand Medicare, a teen seeking a service opportunity, someone in emotional need of a support group, an organization seeking a group volunteer activity for its members, and so on. If fielding calls and making referrals were an Olympic sport, she’d easily qualify.
Two of the annual projects Thomsen initiated provide a delightful common ground where senior volunteers and schoolchildren can share ideas and broaden their mutual awareness of each other’s worlds. The Intergenerational Writing Project met for the third time this year for a six-session poetry-writing collaboration with the sixth-graders of Turning Point School. The Living History Project had its second annual two-session meeting with students from Daniel Freeman Elementary School, who teamed up with the seniors to interview them and prepare the seniors’ bios under the auspices of LEAP (Learning Enrichment After-School Program).
An annual Station Education Day, which this year will probably be held in October, is another creation of Thomsen’s. She invites Volunteer Managers from the various stations (locations served by the RSVP volunteers) to come and network. There are usually three workshops set up and she is one of the speakers. In her next life she could well be a matchmaker, as she’s garnered considerable expertise in arranging connections that successfully fill emotional and practical needs, thus benefiting both sides of the equation.
As one of her most satisfying experiences, Thomsen cited a partnership with Symantec.
“It started because Symantec contacted me about developing a volunteer opportunity for their summer interns,” she said. “Since I’m in charge of the computer lab I noticed a lot of seniors had questions about their cell phones and laptops, and now three plus years later they have questions about tablets and e-readers like Nooks and smart phones and such. So, we set up a one-time workshop for those summer interns in 2008. Since then it has been a quarterly event with us and Symantec and quite successful. The seniors are so grateful – it’s ‘thank you, thank you, thank you!’”
For Thomsen, who would quail at being characterized as some sort of non-cape-embellished superhero called Volunteer Maven (although that’s not an inaccurate description since she regularly leaps obstacles and surmounts difficulties to arrive at effective solutions), “nothing is more rewarding than seeing someone altruistically wanting to do something for someone else. I love my job!”
And her immersion in volunteer activities doesn’t stop when her day at the center ends. She is a dedicated volunteer with The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team In Training, which trains runners, walkers, triathletes, cyclists and hikers to raise funds. She has participated on the hike team, hiking Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, and looks forward next spring to assisting in a mentor capacity.
A quote from “Ulysses” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson could well serve as a poetic encapsulation of the valuable role volunteerism plays in offering seniors opportunities to stay active and involved: “How dull it is to pause, to make an end,/ To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!” And if Thomsen and her colleagues at the center have anything to say about it, there will be little oxidation on their watch.