Elders have the opportunity to give their communities one of the most precious gifts we have to offer, that of our time. Giving a program, a neighbor, a child the attention they need is a magnificent way to enhance our quality of life, it gives us the opportunity to leave behind a memory, and as long as that memory is alive we in turn become immortal.
For many years I have been involved in volunteerism, both on a personal basis, and in designing programs to recruit and train volunteers. The last program I was involved with was able to increase the number of volunteers from under 30,000 statewide in 1998 to 52,890 statewide when I left in 2001, and from under 2.0 million hours of services to 2.6 million hours of volunteer services. As a result, I have learned a lot from talking to those volunteers, they are our most precious commodity and as such should they be treated. From my experiences with elder volunteers I have learned what I call the seven most important rules in volunteerism. I first published these rules in 1996 in an article titled: The Gift of time: The creation of the Pro Salud Clinic and they continue to be relevant today seven years later.
Research the options available to you. Do not volunteer to the first agency or program that contacts you. The key in finding that perfect match between your heart and your gift of time is to know what is available in your community. Volunteer work is like giving a voice to your heart. Your heart cannot speak unless you find the right agency and the right volunteer job. This is also the only way that your voluntary work will renew itself on an ongoing basis.
There is no end to the creative avenues of volunteers. Therefore, first consider the skills you have to offer and make sure those skills match the skills needed for the task. Second, you may not like to use the skills that you have used for the last 30 years and instead you want to learn a new skill. Decide which of the two avenues you want to follow, identify this ahead of time and if what you would like to do is to learn a new skill, investigate only those organizations who offer training in that area.
Combine your personal goals, aspirations and desires with the opportunities that exist in your community and consider only those volunteer opportunities that would help you achieve those goals. Remember, some elders volunteer to achieve self actualization and this can only be reached if we fulfill our personal goals and desires.
Never over commit. Volunteers need to realistically consider what they can offer the organization in term of hours, length of commitment and number of activities they can perform. Remember your family; they also need you at home. Don’t get physically and emotionally tired because of the number of hours you are volunteering or because of the long term commitment you promised the agency. It is better to commit only for a few hours and only for a short period of time until you find the right balance in your new life.
Consider the legal ramifications of your voluntary activities. Your volunteer work should be without fear of liability exposure. This is an extremely important point because elders do not realize they can be personally liable for their voluntary activities. As an elder volunteer you need to make sure you nest egg is well protected. You need to have immunity from liability from any personal injury, wrongful death, property damage and other loss which could include relocation to a new place based on your endorsement. Please remember that:
- Volunteer immunity laws protect the agencies and not the volunteer
- Unless you are an agent of the State of Florida, the state immunity laws will not protect you.
- Good Samaritan Laws protect volunteers in the medical or health care field and engineers in relief efforts in case of disasters, but not other types of volunteers.
- Cases that have been brought against non profit boards of directors and volunteers are based on federal laws which may be unaffected by your state immunity.
- Immunity for liability doesn’t mean that someone can’t sue you and force you to incur expenses that will not be covered by the agency.
Interview the agency before you begin your voluntary work. Make sure the agency’s values are similar to yours, but most importantly make sure the agency has a general liability coverage that includes all the situations where you are going to be involved. Some agencies recommend you obtain personal liability insurance. This is not the best situation for you and unless you are totally sold on this agency and this activity I recommend you look for a better volunteer situation. Make sure you are given a job description listing all the activities you are being asked to perform and make sure none of those activities are activities for which the state requires licensing.
Inquire about training involving not only the job, but the agency in general. The more you know the better equipped you will be to be of service to your community.
If you are not prepared to live up to the responsibilities of the job you should not seek the role of volunteer.
I am proud of the hours and services elders volunteers offered the community during my tenure as Secretary 1999-2001. The hours of services they gave were added value to the increased funding our program received, not a replacement for funding. But we took very seriously the volunteers and their contributions and never used them or devalued in anyway what they offer the programs. As long as volunteers are added value and not replacement, value the expansion of volunteer programs should continue.
Dr. Gema Hernández