By Lauren Cox/For CU-CitizenAccess.org — For Frank Bernhart, volunteering has made all the difference.
Bernhart, 69, has worked as a volunteer at Stevick Senior Center, 48 E. Main St. in Champaign, since moving to Champaign nine years ago to be close to his son, who was then a graduate student at the University.
Bernhart works as a receptionist at the center, sorting mail, answering the phone and greeting visitors.
“It helps me be less depressed,” said Bernhart, whose son has since moved away from Champaign.
“The people here treat me not just like any other person who walks in, but like a part of the staff, and that keeps me sane.”
Karen Bodnar is the program director of the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program and has worked for over 20 years to help seniors like Bernhart stay active through volunteerism. RSVP is a division of Family Service, a private, non-profit organization that provides social services to people in central Illinois.
RSVP matches adults 55 and older with volunteer opportunities in Champaign, Douglas and Piatt counties at local organizations such as schools, hospitals, food pantries and libraries. Bodnar said the program has had about 500 active volunteers in the past year.
Volunteerism keeps seniors physically and mentally active and can help them stay out of nursing homes longer, Bodnar said. She also said it helps the community as a whole. Underfunded organizations, for instance, are able to maintain their services with the help of senior volunteers. Volunteers also use their talents to help others, from planting a garden at the Champaign County Nursing Home to knitting clothing for children in the Unit 4 School District.
Seniors can also help their peers by volunteering with the Stevick Food for Seniors Program, which provides groceries to low-income seniors in Champaign-Urbana, and the Family Service Senior Transportation Program, which provides rides to the grocery store and medical appointments.
“Senior volunteerism is so valuable for the community, especially with food distribution programs, whether it’s for seniors or other people of low income,” said Robbie Edwards, coordinator of the Food for Seniors Program.
In 2013, the Champaign County Meals on Wheels program delivered nearly 21,000 meals to 190 seniors, and the Senior Transportation Drivers program provided more than 6,000 rides to 369 area seniors – feats that would’ve been impossible without volunteers, said Rosanna McLain, director of the Senior Resource Center.
“Giving back to the community can be a big social, emotional and even spiritual help to seniors, and they provide a valuable service,” McLain said. “Some of our volunteer programs, like Meals on Wheels and the transportation program, rely heavily on volunteers and couldn’t operate without them.”
RSVP and Stevick Senior Center also rely on the help of volunteers for their day-to-day operation. RSVP’s offices are located inside the senior center’s building, which is owned by The News-Gazette. The senior center’s other expenses are paid for through charitable donations made to the center, said John Reed, executive vice president of the News-Gazette.
RSVP volunteers like Bernhart are crucial for maintaining and staffing the center. But, Bodnar said, the building’s location has limited attendance of events held at the center, and it lacks the funding to move elsewhere.
“We have a real problem with this location because of parking,” she said. “Parking is $0.75 an hour across the street. We lost a lot of activities when the city raised the cost of parking. We have to be very realistic in knowing that we’re not going to attract the crowds that this senior center used to.”
Still, Bodnar said, shrinking numbers at places like Stevick Senior Center may also be a positive sign that more seniors want to be volunteers in their communities instead of spending their time inside senior centers. According to a report by the federal Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), more than 10 million seniors nationwide volunteered in 2012. CNCS also reported that seniors 65 and over spend at least twice as much time volunteering than any other age group.
“At 75, 80 or even 85 years old, seniors aren’t just sitting around – they’re doing stuff,” Bodnar said. “We have a 100-year-old who’s still volunteering because she started a long time ago, and it’s kept her healthy. So, in general, we don’t have the kind of activity at senior centers that we used to.”