RSVP program is a vehicle for senior volunteers - Catholic Courier

RSVP program is a vehicle for senior volunteers

Potential volunteers looking for an organization that fits their skills and talents have an ally in Mary Beth Gueldner.

Gueldner is the director of the RSVP program, a federally-funded program from the Corporation for National and Community Service, which recruits, screens, trains and matches senior-citizen volunteers with nonprofits in Monroe County. RSVP is sponsored locally by Lifespan, a nonprofit that serves seniors.

"We’re matchmakers," said Gueldner, who previously worked as the volunteer coordinator at Catholic Charities of Livingston County. "We’re the vehicle for volunteers to come and look at an assortment of things. It’s like a menu, in a way."

From July 1, 2008, through June 30, 2009, 784 RSVP volunteers served at a total of 71 nonprofits. RSVP volunteers served 84,614 hours during that time frame, with the average volunteer serving two hours a week. Two volunteers served more than 1,560 hours, which averages to more than 30 hours a week.

Gueldner said there is no upper age limit on volunteers. She currently has several nonagenarian RSVP volunteers, with the oldest being 95. More than a quarter of the volunteers are 65 and under, and although the RSVP program is limited to those who are 55 and older, Lifespan also provides many opportunities for volunteers younger than 55.

Many Catholic organizations receive RSVP volunteers, including Notre Dame Learning Center, Mercy Bridges, Mercy on the Move, the Sisters of St. Joseph transportation program, and parish transportation ministries in Irondequoit and Rochester’s northeastern section.

Although RSVP volunteers are unpaid, the program provides them with an annual recognition party and free supplemental accident and liability insurance while volunteering and traveling to and from a site.

Gueldner catalogues the time volunteered and the work that was done, and ensures that a majority of the RSVP volunteers work with programs that quantify how they have helped the community.

"We have to prove (to the federal government) that volunteering makes a measurable difference in the community," Gueldner said.

Programs that qualify as improving the community and accept RSVP volunteers include Meals on Wheels; Partners in Caring, which offers seniors nonmedical caregiving and friendly visiting; Give-a-Lift, a Lifespan-run consortium of 21 transportation agencies and ministries; ombudsman, who act as advocates for seniors in long-term-care communities; and programs that help seniors with financial management, home safety, health education, prescription review, tax preparation and adult education. RSVP volunteers also work in elementary education, tutoring and mentoring programs.

Gueldner said she aims to suggest volunteer opportunities that mesh with people’s skills; for instance, a retired pharmacist reviews seniors’ medications for drug interactions.

"I like this because it values people’s experience," Gueldner said. "It doesn’t take people who reach a certain age and put them on a shelf or put them out to pasture. It allows people to utilize what they learned in their life and use their talents and experiences."

She noted that while it is easy to write a check to a cause, a volunteer’s time also has value and is irreplaceable.

"One of the most important things someone can do is give their time to a cause," Gueldner said.

Sister of St. Joseph Anne Guerin, the coordinator of Lifespan’s Give-a-Lift volunteer transportation consortium, said volunteers report enjoying their volunteer experiences.

"It’s a win-win situation," Sister Guerin said. "The drivers love it, and the (recipient clients) love it. A significant number of (the volunteers), when we ask about it, say they feel so needed. They love the clients, and they enjoy the trips."

Gilbert Landry, executive director of Elderberry Express, a volunteer transportation program for senior citizens of Pittsford and 81 Linden Knoll in Brighton, said RSVP sends him screened and trained volunteers who serve as backup drivers.

Elderberry Express, one of the groups in the Give-a-Lift consortium, was started in 1987 through the collaboration of seven Pittsford churches who participated in the Pittsford Interfaith Coalition on Aging.

If RSVP didn’t exist, his job would be much more difficult, he said.

"They have been very supportive of what we do," said Landry, who is a parishioner of Pittsford’s Church of the Transfiguration.

Mercy Sister Edwardine Weaver said RSVP volunteers have helped Mercy Bridges, a 2-year-old adult literacy and English as a second language tutoring program, handle its rapid growth as an agency. Mercy Bridges has offered tutoring in reading and writing English to about 200 people from 30 countries.

"They have sent us some very fine applicants," Sister Weaver said of RSVP.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Potential RSVP volunteers and seniors who need services may call Lifespan at 585-244-8400.

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