California Program Activates Volunteer Senior Leaders

By Minkler, Meredith; Martinson, Marty | Aging Today, November/December 2008 | Go to article overview

California Program Activates Volunteer Senior Leaders


Minkler, Meredith, Martinson, Marty, Aging Today


Bobbie Bond of Oakland, Calif., helped create the city's Feet on the Street program, which organizes walking groups for elders in high-crime neighborhoods. A member of the Mayor's Commission on Aging, she also co-led efforts to create the Oakland Senior Shuttle-a partnership between the city and nonprofits to provide transportation to thousands of elders who might otherwise go without such access.

In rural Santa Ynez, Calif., Grace Pacheco is a senior leader of the Chumash Indian community. She works with Chumash health clinics and teaches children traditional tribal ways. Another senior leader, Adelina Alva-Padilla, commented, "There is not a person in this community who doesn't feel deep love for Gracie. . . . She has been involved in politics here since before the houses were built [and] has done so much for preserving the culture."

These are a few of the many stories shared by participants in the California Senior Leaders Program (CSLP), who have developed projects on a wide range of issues, such as preventing violence, educating youth to oppose racism, advocating for homeless people, fostering healthy aging and promoting community building. We began the program at the University of California (UC), Berkeley, School of Public Healdi in 2002 as a model program to train and activate older adults.

Although the rapid aging of the U.S. population presents many new challenges to local governments, it also brings tremendous opportunities, particularly in the arena of volunteerism. Not every older individual wants to-or is able to-volunteer, but many will seek new avenues for civic engagement, offering their communities a valuable talent pool. Talent, however, always needs to be identified and nurtured; to date, CSLP has involved more than 90 senior leaders, ages 60 to 93, with another 30 slated to come.

RESERVOIR OF TALENT

Research indicates that volunteering can lead to better health, especially among older adults, who are particularly vulnerable to illness and depression, according to the report The Health Benefits of Volunteering: A Review of Recent Research (Corporation for National and Community Service, 2007; www.nationalservice.gov). The physical and social engagement gained tiirough volunteering can improve the well-being of older adults while offering a meaningful way for communities to benefit from their contributions.

Although older volunteers can't-and shouldn't-be expected to replace needed health and social services, tapping this reservoir of talent will be invaluable as the United States seeks to better address and advocate more effectively on behalf of human needs. Communities around the country that hope to harvest die capabilities of midlife and older volunteers might draw some key lessons from CSLP about the value of training, networking and recognizing their contributions.

Since CSLP began six years ago, the program has gathered three new groups of about 30 senior leaders each every two years. The California Wellness Foundation, which finances CSLP, recently extended its funding for an additional group of 30 senior leaders.

Participating older adults come together for two days of intense training and networking in sessions led by local experts on media advocacy, healthy aging, policy change, fundraising and so on.

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