By Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times
Name a cause in the Birmingham metro area, and you’ll likely find Carolyn and Willie Doss Jr. serving as volunteers. The couple can be found working almost any time with the American Diabetes Association, Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, and the Alzheimer’s Association, as well as every Tuesday at the Salvation Army.
“We’re not in it for the fame or money or anything,” Carolyn said. “It’s just for the love of other people and giving back to them, whether it’s big or small—and it’s the small things that make the difference in people’s lives.”
Carolyn, 62, and Willie, 65, both from Birmingham, have participated for about six years in the Positive Maturity Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP).
“It’s like Match.com for volunteerism for older adults,” said Positive Maturity Executive Director Penny Kakoliris. “If you’re retired or not and decide you want to start volunteering in your community, you can call us. We’ll ask about your interests, … find a nonprofit or community agency that needs your volunteerism and match you up with them.”
Many older adults are retiring, but that doesn’t mean they’re no longer working. A growing number are volunteering with various agencies and nonprofit groups.
Carolyn became a volunteer when she retired from the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) in 2012. Willie, who also worked for postal service, followed her lead when he retired a year later. They heard about Positive Maturity through their work with AARP.
“As you grow older, … you’ve got to keep going, you’ve got to keep your brain engaged,” said Kakoliris. “If people are volunteering, they’re actively engaged, they’re having conversations, they’re learning new skills, they’re connected to community resources.”
Positive Maturity is a nonprofit organization that helps to enhance and empower the lives of older adults through social services and civic engagement. It offers a broad range of programs and resources, including the RSVP.
“It’s worthwhile because it gets to be like a fellowship of love, and you get to meet a lot of people,” said Carolyn. “When you’re talking to them, you think you’re helping them, but you’re really helping yourself, too, because it releases a lot of your stress, as well.”
RSVP volunteers can set their own hours and work as many they would like. Currently, the program boasts about 1,900 active volunteers throughout the four-county (Jefferson, Shelby, St. Clair, and Walker) region who last year totaled more than 400,000 hours of community service.
“We have been part of [breast cancer awareness walks]. We’ve done some things [to support Alzheimer’s and diabetes groups]; seeing that I have diabetes, that played a big part in me helping out,” said Willie. “With RSVP, it’s not mandated that you do something every day but only when you feel like it. Still, it’s rewarding.”
Carolyn said of volunteerism, “I really enjoy it. When we finish one job, then I’m on the internet looking for what we can do next, finding out what type of help is needed. It’s a joy. You see people from all different walks of life, and it’s really nice to get out and use yourself for others. That’s what we’re here for: to help others.”
Being involved with Positive Maturity’s RSVP keeps Willie and Carolyn from being idle, both said.
“We have met a lot of people from all different walks of life,” he said. “Once you see them and put that smile on their face, and they see you smiling at them and not frowning up, it’s just a joy to see … the impact you have on people.”
In addition to RSVP, two other key Positive Maturity placement efforts are the Foster Grandparent and Senior Companion programs.
The Foster Grandparents Program (FGP) pairs low-income adults, ages 55 and older, with children classified as at-risk, such as those who have an incarcerated parent, live with a single parent, speak English as a second language, or are behind in their socialization or daily living skills. Senior participants must pass a criminal-background check and physical and are asked to complete a minimum of 15 to 20 hours per week.
“Foster Grandparents … have an individualized service plan through which they work with [students] to help catch them up in their classes,” said Kakoliris. “They work in day care facilities, early head start programs, and elementary schools. They mentor students in Jackson-Olin High School’s young mothers’ program, as well as young people in the detention center.
Positive Maturity’s FGP has about 73 senior participants who serve 123 children. Volunteers also receive a stipend and a meal allowance, and they are reimbursed for transportation.
‘Smiles on their Faces’
FGP volunteer Deborah Deramus, 63, has been volunteering with the program for about 10 years. She first learned about and signed up with Positive Maturity at an event at Patton Park in the North Avondale neighborhood of East Birmingham. Deramus volunteers at the Educational Program for the Individual Child (EPIC) Elementary School and primarily works with second graders.
“It’s so rewarding when you see those kids that go to the third, fourth, and fifth grades, and when they see you in the hall, recognize you, and say ‘Thank you, Ms. Deramus, for helping me.’ You see the smiles on their faces,” she said. “Even when they move on to higher grades and go to different schools, they still come back to see if you’re there and tell you how much they appreciate it. It’s very rewarding for me to help and assist kids.”
Deramus helps with both class work and homework, such as math and science projects. She also has accompanied students on field trips to the Birmingham Zoo and Children’s Theater. She said she has always been a kid-friendly person and working with Positive Maturity as a foster grandparent has helped her use her natural skills to help others.
“It helps me in my Sunday school teaching with the kids,” Deramus said. “It’s like the kids are drawn to me, but it really has affected me. It keeps me going. It keeps me energetic. I have great-grandchildren and I look out for kids in my neighborhood, so it really has been a very positive thing for me to work with them. I’m glad I volunteered to work with Positive Maturity.”
Volunteers with the Senior Companion Program (SCP) go into the homes of other seniors or disabled individuals to assist with light housekeeping and small-meal preparation, as well as provide companionship. Participants are low-income adults, ages 55 and older; they must pass a criminal-background check and physical, and they are asked to complete a minimum of 15 to 20 hours per week. SCP volunteers also receive a stipend and a meal allowance, and they are reimbursed for transportation.
“[Positive Maturity] gives our seniors something to do,” said SCP Director LaQuita Smith. “It allows them to give back to their community and … get out of the house to help someone in need.”
Smith, 56, has been working with Positive Maturity for 18 years and has been director of the SCP for 10. There is a need for more volunteers for some of the services, she said.
“As things are changing, I’m beginning to see more where caregivers need a break, … so we are beginning to utilize a lot of our volunteers in that area,” Smith said. “[We are] reaching out to our caregivers in the community who need assistance. A lot of them have loved ones at home but are still in the workforce, so [the services we provide allow] them to continue to go out to work and do some of the things they need to do. [We] give them a break.”
Myrtle Russell, 64, learned of Positive Maturity through a friend and has been volunteering with the organization for four years.
“I love my clients, and I just fall in love with them,” she said. “Every day, they tell me how I put smiles on their faces. Sometimes I get teary-eyed, but I just love them to death. When I walk in the door, they tell me how glad they are to see me. They make my day, and I make theirs.”
Russell volunteers every day for about four to five hours a day, doing light housekeeping and offering companionship to seniors by talking with them or going for walks. She chose SCP because she wanted to be able to give back.
“God has been good to me in a lot of ways, and I wanted to give back to older people [and] put smiles on their faces,” Russell said. “It has made a big impact on me because I can do for people who can’t do for themselves. It just makes my day. I look forward to getting up every day and doing it. I thank God for giving me the strength to do it. I feel so blessed to be able to do it.”
Positive Maturity is a partner of United Way of Central Alabama and sponsor for the Corporation for National and Community Service serving adults 50 and older in the Blount, Jefferson, Shelby, and Walker county areas. For more information, visit Positive Maturity at www.positivematurity.org, on Twitter @PositiveMaturity, and via Facebook at www.facebook.com/PMSERVICES.