It wasn’t until Steve DuBose retired after 27 years of teaching and coaching in Gilmer County, Georgia, that he discovered his inner green thumb.
The Georgetown, Tennessee, resident wasn’t the type to sit around and rock away his new free time when he left the classroom six years ago. Since he had an interest in the Tennessee Aquarium, he looked up the attraction online, saw volunteers were needed, and thought it would be a good opportunity to learn something new.
“When I went in, the only choices available were food preparation or horticulture. I opted for horticulture,” he says of his volunteer placement. “They trained me, showed me how to water all the plants, how much water each needed, and pruning. They were very good and very patient.”
Now he spends seven to eight hours a week taking care of all the plants in the downtown attraction and its greenhouse on Amnicola Highway. With no previous experience, he has become quite knowledgeable about the plants he tends as well as the Aquarium’s conservation programs, and says he is glad he chose to lend a hand.
DuBose is part of the 10,000-plus adults — hundreds of them age 55 and older — who help keep Chattanooga’s social service agencies, nonprofits, arts organizations, tourist attractions and educational outreaches humming along.
“It’s important for seniors to remain active,” says Mariko Tinaya, program manager for the area’s Retired and Senior Volunteer Program, which falls under the umbrella of the Partnership for Families, Children and Adults. “There is a lot of research that points to overall health benefits of remaining active physically, emotionally and socially, which keeps people socially connected.
“The social isolation aspect is most important. I believe humans are hardwired for belonging and connecting. When they no longer feel they have a purpose, their reason for being has been stripped.”
With the pandemic stripping away the typical social engagements, vacations, even the opportunity work in an office environment, many Americans have found themselves in a similar situation. An August 2020 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed a tripling of anxiety symptoms and a quadrupling of depression among those surveyed as compared to 2019.
Judy King Williams, a UTC alum who just moved back to Tennessee from Cashiers, North Carolina, upon her retirement, has the prescription.
“I stay busy!” says King, who worked in the financial field of health care before spending 30 years with pharmaceutical company McKesson Corp.
“I’m in three knitting groups, I volunteer at a local thrift shop, I’m involved with the local food pantry, and until we moved, I was on another charity board and involved in our church,” Williams says. “Since we moved back to Tennessee, I have already applied to volunteer at a thrift shop and the food pantry.”
Karen Pierce Miller has managed to fill 15 years with projects following her retirement from Abbott Laboratories, an Illinois-based medical device company, after 27 years.
“I’ve been retired for 15 years and still have a long list of projects in my queue,” she says. “There are a zillion things in the ‘enjoy doing’, ‘should do’, ‘could do’ and ‘must do’ categories. Each year I try to prioritize and tackle one to two things in each category. Be sure to include at least one ‘enjoy’ thing to keep it balanced.”
The COVID-19 quarantine was already in effect when Joy Scruggs retired from Emory & Henry College in Emory, Virginia, but she hasn’t let that stop her from finding new ways to fill her time. Scruggs coached basketball at Girls Preparatory School for four years before leading Emory & Henry’s women’s team for 28 years.
“I had thought I would be volunteering more,” she says of her retirement. “Nonetheless, I have begun serving on the board of my Rotary Club and a committee for athletics at Emory and Henry — both things I can do remotely.”
Tinaya says the pandemic has caused a decline in RSVP’s volunteers this year, although the need for volunteers remains strong.
“We had 114 volunteers serve January-March, 2020. Between April 1 and Nov. 30 of 2020, there were only 37 volunteers who served. Our average age volunteer is early 70s — the most vulnerable age,” she says.
“However, many of the organizations we work with are considered essential, such as Chattanooga Food Bank, Meals on Wheels, or outreach ministries that provide companionship to isolated or homebound seniors.”
We asked area retirees through an impromptu Facebook poll where they volunteer. Their answers ranged from fostering puppies and kittens for animal shelters to teaching financial basics to school students. Their answers are listed below along with contact information for related agencies, where possible. While some volunteer placements, such as docents, have been suspended during the pandemic, they are still included as examples of opportunities.
Volunteering has been shown to improve donors’ health and mood, the result of the happiness-inducing dopamine released by helping others, and can even help with job prospects through the networking and skill-building involved. So, how will you spend 2021?
21 ways to lend a hand
1. Be a docent at the Tennessee Aquarium.
2. Be a stylist or career coach for Dress for Success Chattanooga, which offers professional attire and job skills training and support to help women break the cycle of poverty.
3. Walk dogs and/or foster animals with the Humane Educational Society or McKamey Animal Center.
4. Adopt a meal and cook for families staying at Ronald McDonald House Charities of Greater Chattanooga.
5. Deliver food to shut-ins via Meals on Wheels.
Area Agency on Aging & Disability: 423-424-4256
6. Adopt a pen pal from Welcome Home Chattanooga, a hospice home for veterans and the homeless.
7. Volunteer at Bethel Bible Village, a Christian residential campus for children and teens in crisis.
8. Make food boxes and sort donations at Chattanooga Area Food Bank.
9. Help staff the box office or serve as an usher for a community theater.
Chattanooga Theatre Centre: theatrecentre.com/get-involved/volunteer
10. Sort clothing donations, clean and dress refurbished dolls at The Samaritan Center, a social services agency for those in the eastern part of Hamilton County.
11. Landscape or do yard maintenance for a nonprofit.
12. Take on handyman chores with Widows Harvest Ministries, which supports widows through free home improvement projects and prayer.
13. Teach English as a second language. (No teacher experience required.)
Offered in multiple area churches through Hamilton County Baptist Association: baptistassociation.com/ministries/esl
14. Share your musical talent by entertaining in a nursing home.
15. Chaperone, chauffeur, cook and/or shop for refugees new to Chattanooga.
Bridge Refugee Services: bridgerefugees.org/chattanooga-volunteer-opportunities
16. Tutor children and at-risk youth.
17. Teach basic financial principles to schoolchildren through Junior Achievement.
18. Rock newborns in the nursery at Erlanger or Parkridge East.
erlanger.org/volunteering/volunteering; Parkridge: 423-855-3645
19. Answer phones or otherwise help staff a nonprofit’s office.
20. Teach life skills to youth aging out of foster homes through the Partnership for Families, Children and Adults’ River City Youth Collective.
21. Be an advocate for victims of natural disasters.
American Red Cross: 423-265-3455
The Retired and Senior Volunteer Program and United Way of Greater Chattanooga’s Volunteer Center can help match you with a volunteer placement that suits your skills and interests.
When deciding where you will volunteer, consider these things:
* Time commitment: Many agencies require a specific amount of hours per month. Are those hours flexible?
* Perks for volunteers: Does the agency offer volunteers gift shop discounts? Admission discounts? Free or paid parking? Service recognition or volunteer appreciation dinners? Newsletters?
* Training: What type of training does the agency provide?
For more information:
United Way of Greater Chattanooga: 423-752-0300 or unitedwaycha.org
Retired and Senior Volunteer Program: 423-755-2726 or email firstname.lastname@example.org