Senior Power : “Noah’s Ark Was Built By Volunteers”

By Helen Rippier Wheeler
Sunday July 11, 2010 - 09:35:00 AM

(The complete quotation, according to Energize, Inc- Especially for Leaders of Volunteers, is “Don't ever question the value of volunteers. Noah's Ark was built by volunteers; the Titanic was built by professionals.”)  

Volunteering is the practice of people working on behalf of others or a particular cause, without payment for their time and services. It is generally considered an altruistic activity, intended to promote good or improve human quality of life. People also volunteer for their own skill development, to meet others, to make contacts for possible employment, to have fun, and for a variety of other reasons, some of which might be considered self-serving and that I won’t go into now. 

Volunteering takes many forms and is performed by a wide range of people. Many volunteers are specifically trained for the areas in which they work, such as medicine , education, or emergency rescue and fire-fighting. Some volunteers serve on an as-needed basis, as in response to a natural disaster or for a beach cleanup. And there’s the volunteer army. Habitat for Humanity and international service clubs such as Rotary and Soroptimists are examples of nonprofit service organizations. 

Volunteerism is a tradition that encourages unpaid community and church service as the most acceptable activity for women away from home. 

Wikipedia Encyclopedia differentiates among 3 other volun… terms: (1) Voluntarism (action) , the use of or reliance on voluntary action to maintain an institution, carry out a policy, or achieve an end; (2) Voluntarism (metaphysics), a philosophical term emphasizing the primacy of the will; and (3) Voluntaryism, the philosophical position that the only legitimate interactions between and among people are those freely assented to by all parties concerned. 


From a senior citizen’s perspective, there are 2 approaches to volunteering and to volunteers-- the senior citizen as a volunteer, and volunteers as providers of various kinds of support for senior citizens.  

Once a week eighty-nine year old Aiko Yamamoto volunteers at the North Berkeley Senior Center front desk and served one term as an elected member of the Center’s Advisory Council. Asked about volunteer work, eighty-four year old Harry Siitonen focuses on labor, his lifelong concern; he had to quit the Alameda Central Labor Council because of his hearing but he writes for the Finnish-American newspaper and he pickets. When asked about her current volunteer work, seventy-eight year old Ying Lee mentions concern for “peace and social justice issues.” (She is a former member of the Berkeley Public Library board of trustees; service on Berkeley boards and commissions is appointive). (See April 27, 30, 2010 Berkeley Daily Planet)  

A young, unemployed, recent graduate who in the past was expected to complete a low-paying internship in her/his field now hunts for an internship to get experience that may lead to a “real job”, a paying job. “It will look good on your resume” may accompany an invitation to do work without pay. As a senior citizen, you can volunteer but you will usually be expected to submit an application or be invited to apply to volunteer. 

The City of Berkeley’s Division on Aging website reads “Volunteers are always welcome in all of our programs to deliver meals to home-bound seniors, to assist with the Mercy Brown Bag program , to teach classes, and to provide other expertise and help. Volunteer Forms are available on line.” This is followed by a broken link. Currently, most of the senior centers’ classes are conducted by unpaid volunteers. 

It is possible to apply online to volunteer at the Ecology Center, which runs Berkeley’s residential curbside recycling program , the Farmers' Markets, Farm Fresh Choice food justice program, Terrain magazine, EcoHouse demonstration home and garden, the Ecology Center Store, and a variety of Information and Climate Change Action programs

The BIN – Berkeley Information Network -- is a project of the Berkeley Public Library; hundreds of hits respond to “volunteer organizations.” 

The State of California website’s Volunteer Search Results generates 93 Alameda County “ongoing” hits; “at home” and “one-time” opportunities are listed. Some are “suitable for teens, seniors.” One – for a board member, minimum age 50, meets once a month… expects Board members to bring at least $500 to the organization each calendar year… 


There can be problems associated with volunteering and volunteer work. For example, as I write this, there are 50+ San Francisco Bay Area Craigslist responses when keywords volunteer + services or community are paired. Few sound like they are responses from genuine volunteers offering free services or things. Elsewhere on the Internet, there’s what may be better news, e.g. the Association of New Jersey Volunteer Centers declares “Volunteer! There are numerous volunteer positions available at our Centers - intake coordinators, facilitators, receptionists, computer specialists and more.”  

The United Nations Volunteers (UNV) program contributes to peace and development through volunteerism. “Every year, close to 8,000 qualified and experienced women and men of 160 nationalities serve as UNV volunteers in 130 countries. They are professionals who play key roles contributing to peace and making an impact on development results.” To qualify for AmeriCorps*VISTA, one must be a U.S. citizen, U.S. national, or lawful permanent resident . Most programs seek members with college degrees or at least 3 years of work experience. Many also seek retirees with extensive experience.  


The professional literature is full of research reportage on the subject of volunteering. Journals concerned with volunteering include: Alternative Lifestyles, Australian Journal of Psychology , Hospice Journal, Journal of Gerontological Social Work, Psychology of Women Quarterly, Social Work in Health Care, and Women & Aging. An entire book has been written on the subject of managing museum volunteers!  

Sex and gender appear to be frequently-considered factors when considering volunteers and volunteering. (Sex is the biological status of the person; gender is the cultural notion of what it is to be a woman or a man.) “Gender and work history in the placement and perceptions of elder community volunteers” were reported by Kara Fischer in the June 1991 Psychology of Women Quarterly. In “ Gender and religious differences associated with volunteering in later life ” (Journal of Women & Aging, April 2010), Lynda K. Manning reported investigating the effect of gender and religiosity on volunteer behavior in later life. When accounting for gender and religious differences specifically, there are assumptions that older women are more likely to volunteer in later life as opposed to men, and that gender is a better predictor than being religious for the likelihood of occupying a volunteer role in later life.  

In her PhD dissertation Masako Ishii-Kuntz considered “Formal activities for elderly women: determination of participation in voluntary and senior center activities” (Journal of Women & Aging 1990 2(1).) She found that age, race, and health status influence participation in voluntary organizations and senior centers. Elderly widows are more likely to participate in voluntary organizations than married women. Loneliness has a positive impact on senior center participation of these women. In both Japan and the United States, participation in senior center activities and classes is not necessarily associated with volunteering in the work of a senior center. High school students allegedly filling ‘community service’ requirements are often found engrossed in their homework at the senior center front desk! 


The National Displaced Homemakers Network grew out of a support group for unemployed older women. A displaced homemaker was defined as an individual who had been providing unpaid services to family members in the home and who, after managing a household for years, was forced by financial necessity to find a wage-paying job. The programs aimed to help them transition from home to workplace with free sessions on life-skills development, job-skills assessment, career counseling, pre-employment preparation, job referral, and placement. It was the era in which older women were told that retirement provides opportunity to pursue higher education through enrollment in a college or in short-term adult education or Elderhostel program. Although the Displaced Homemakers Self-Sufficiency Assistance Act was adopted in 1990 and repealed in 1998, the Network’s advice continues to be germane to senior citizens’ needs and interests: “Good volunteer opportunities are available in hospitals, schools, libraries, art museums, and numerous nonprofit organizations. Contact your local Council on Aging, Office of Elder Affairs, Area Agency on Aging, or Voluntary Action Center to find out about volunteer programs. Call your state house of representatives or city hall to find out which agency administers volunteer programs for elders in your community.” 






Helen Rippier Wheeler can be reached at 

No email attachments; use “Senior Power” for subject.