Senior Beat

Volunteering with RSVP a ‘rewarding’ experience for seniors

By Carol Higgins Taylor

Special to The Weekly

There is a very special feeling that comes from teaching something to a child. It is almost like taking a sip from the fountain of youth.

Rita Buddemeyer is convinced the key to feeling young is spending time with young people. Rita is a volunteer with the national Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) sponsored by UMaine Center on Aging and funded by the Corporation for National and Community Service, State Office of Aging and Disability Services and United Way of Eastern Maine.

Rita says she drives her car, earthbound, to meet the children at their school, but after spending time with them, her trip home is more like flying on cloud nine.

“The energy, enthusiasm, inquisitiveness and creativity of youth is indeed uplifting,” she said of her work with preschool and elementary school age children in RSVP’s Let’s Read! Let’s Grow! and Roots for STEM Education programs.

The goal of RSVP’s Let’s Read! Let’s Grow! program is to ensure that young children are read to aloud on a regular basis because studies have shown that it results in improved literacy skills and sends the children on a lifelong journey of reading and book loving.

The goal of Roots for STEM (Science Technology, Engineering and Math) Education is to engage elementary school children in hands-on math and science activities to build skills and stir excitement for future STEM learning.

“I’ve seen it happen time and again,” said Paula Burnett, RSVP director. “When our volunteers interact with the children they become young at heart themselves, immediately lighting up upon arriving at their volunteer site.”

It is amazing how much the volunteers get back, given the minimal amount of time, usually one or two hours a week, required by the program. It is easy to fit into any schedule. Or even work around it. One volunteer, who reads to children at the Y, takes a swim afterwards.

Volunteering and exercise. Two of the best ways to stay in shape mentally and physically.

“It is well documented that volunteering is good for you,” said Burnett. “Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found a 40-percent decrease in the risk of hypertension for seniors who volunteer four hours a week, while researchers at John Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health found the memory center in the brains of seniors who volunteered in public schools for two years maintained their size, rather than shrinking as part of the normal aging process. In men, the researchers found, the memory centers actually grew modestly.” This is truly a program where everyone wins.

Volunteers with the Let’s Read! Let’s Grow! program are matched with preschools, child care centers and nonprofit organizations, and are provided with training on early childhood literacy and given books, tips and ideas to get started. Volunteers in the STEM program, who have a background in education or the STEM subjects, work with children from Kindergarten to the 6th grade.

“We have had a retired nuclear engineer, biologist, and former teachers, among others,” said Burnett. “Students get excited about math and science when they interact with the volunteers who were professionals in their fields and the volunteers get great joy from imparting their decades of earned wisdom onto the students. These programs succeed in their goals to support children, but one of the truly interesting impacts is on the senior volunteers themselves.”

RSVP is available in Penobscot, Piscataquis, Hancock and Washington counties. The only requirement is to be 55 or older and have a yearning to help children learn and grow. Volunteers go through orientation, receive training and ongoing support.

“Working in the program is very rewarding,” said a volunteer who wished to remain anonymous. “I love watching the children grow in their knowledge and character. They greet me with enthusiasm, call out my name as I enter their classroom and give me many hugs throughout my time with them.”

If this is an experience that sounds good to you, call Cindy Whitney, RSPV, at 262-7924, or email cynthia.whitney@maine.edu to get more information.

Carol Higgins Taylor is an advocate for seniors and owns Bryant Street Public Relations in Bangor. Email her at seniorbeat@gmail.com.

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