By Harriet West, a retired florist turned elementary school mentor, is emblematic of a trend that is getting more attention – and cash.
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More retirees are beginning so-called “encore careers,” turning to public service as a method of giving back to society while paying a few bills.
National organizations like Civic Ventures and Experience Corps match older Americans with work that maximizes their experience and passion with social problems that need solutions.
Last April, the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act was signed into law, mandating 10% of AmeriCorps openings be filled with people 55 or older. The new law funds the jobs and fellowships with federal stimulus money.
A 2008 survey by Civic MetLife Foundation/Civic Ventures found more than 5 million people ages 44 to 70 had begun encore careers. Fully half of those not already in such careers, say they want them.
West and her husband managed “Flowers by Nina,” a fixture in Boston’s Mission Hill neighborhood for more than 30 years. Their son inherited the shop after her husband passed away. West, now 79, spent her days keeping up with 17 grandchildren and working in the garden she kept in her front yard.
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“Every day, a Generations Incorporated staff member would pass my house and ask me if I was ready to go back to work,” West said. “I wasn't sure, but he brought me an application and got me in touch with someone at the office. I applied for a position [as a director of volunteers] and for two years have been at the Kenny Elementary School in Dorchester.”
West leads a team of adult volunteers who teach literacy to kids ages six to nine. Generations is the Boston division of Experience Corps, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that began in 1988 and has spread to 22 cities, where its 2,000 volunteers now mentor some 20,000 school children.
“I feel good and strong about serving,” West said.
Aside from personal satisfaction, there’s also an added bonus for folks like West. A team of Johns Hopkins neurophysicists extensively tested seven female Experience Corps volunteers with an average age of 67 in Boston. After six months working in school, they showed a 40% improvement in cognitive testing.
Civic Ventures, a Silicon Valley think tank, began its encore career program in 2006. It differs from Generations in two important respects: its mission is not confined to schools, and it pays participants.
“We aim to engage millions of boomers in encore careers that combine personal meaning, social impact and continued income,” said Jennifer Coate, associate director of communications.
An “encore fellowship” program started last year pays participants $25,000 to work part time for a year - or six months full time - in nonprofits, she said. In 2006, Civic Ventures began awarding its Purpose Prize, which recognizes social entrepreneurs over 60.
After attending a Purpose Prize presentation in New York City last year, George Wolf found several encore careers.
In 2005, he shut the designer knitwear business he founded in 1993, in the economic development zone of the South Bronx.
“As China gradually ruined us by buying up all the machinery, yarns, fibers they could and killing the infrastructure, I was forced to close the business in 2005,” Wolf said, “throwing a substantial number of local, loyal, capable workers onto the street. At age 78, I found the rest of the industry, which had consisted of mostly creative, entrepreneurial individuals proud of their product and quality, changed to a bunch of greedy financial wizards.”
The career garment entrepreneur began looking for other work.
“My resume garnered many calls, some quite urgent,” Wolf said. “But once the in-person interviews made my age apparent, the excuses not to hire me were laughably imaginative.”
At age 80, “in good health and full of energy, I had to find a solution for what I figured might be another 15-plus years of life,” he said. “I did not want to spend that time reading the paper, sitting on a park bench, slowly becoming stupid.”
Intrigued by the encore program he attended, Wolf connected with ReServe Inc.(reserveinc.org), a non-profit that matches retired professionals with nonprofits that need assistance but cannot afford it at market rates.
“I landed a job at The Blue Card, a small charity aiding destitute Holocaust survivors,” Wolf said. “Officially just [its] marketing director, I help with strategy, business solutions, fund-raising and much else.”
But that wasn’t enough for the one-time Czech immigrant. He also began working with a Brooklyn economic development organization that does microloans and fund raising and marketing for a small ballet company.
“Not only am I active and involved, I deal with totally different people than the ones I was involved with in the apparel business,” Wolf said. “In the non-profit sector, people are idealistic, well-meaning, charitable, compassionate, generally highly educated people.
My age and experience - of life as well as business - are an asset. I am happy, energized, creative, and feel a lot younger than my 82 years would normally indicate.”
The year-old Serve America Act is modeled on Civic Ventures’ Encore Fellowship program. It authorizes $11,000 apiece for 10 fellows, 55 or older, per state. Host organizations must add matching funds.
The legislation, co-authored by Sen. Orrin Hatch, (R-Utah), reads in part: “Many retiring citizens are ready, willing, and able to be involved in service and have skills the public needs… The legislation will enhance incentives for retirees to give a year of service through the new Corps, and will establish ‘Encore Fellowships’ that help retirees transition to longer-term public service.
Some retirees, like Art Koff, rely solely on their own entrepreneurial spirit to invent their encore careers.
Koff retired seven years ago after 40 years in the advertising business. In 2003, he founded RetiredBrains.com, a free service that offers older Americans a wide range of advice and information, including job listings. He now has three partners, a sales manager, a Web designer and a recruitment ad specialist.
“I am 75 and live in Chicago with my wife and two Westies,” Koff said. “I hope to keep working as long as I am physically and mentally able to do so. I currently work at least 40 hours a week but may find I have to cut this time back once I get into my 80's although I don't plan to do this unless I have to.”