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Trent Stamp

In celebration of Older Americans Month, The Eisner Foundation CEO Trent Stamp discusses the importance of connection and intergenerational volunteerism for older adults and our nation.

Led by the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Community Living, our country’s annual celebration of Older Americans Month is always a valuable time to spotlight the contributions of older adults in our communities. At The Eisner Foundation, we support intergenerational efforts to solve our society’s many challenges. We’re particularly excited that this year’s theme is “Powered by Connection,” which we hope will spur more individuals and organizations to embrace the transformative power of intergenerational connections.

Intergenerational connection is not just a feel-good term; it's a critical component of a thriving society. When older adults and younger generations come together, they create a mutually beneficial bond that not only benefits both parties but also the community around them. Young people gain wisdom, stability, and mentorship, while older adults find renewed purpose, joy, and a sense of contribution. Meanwhile, as mutual understanding grows, ageism diminishes. Taken to scale, these sentiments reinforce that we can work together, rather than compete with each other, to make our country a better place.

Intergenerational programs are a tool to solve social challenges and are premised on the inherent value of each member of our society. Everyone, including older participants, has something to contribute to a truly effective intergenerational effort. Programs that leverage the assets older adults bring to the table, like AmeriCorps Seniors, do exactly this by intentionally recruiting, managing, and retaining older volunteers.

The Value of Older Volunteers

Older volunteers are a testament to the adage that giving is receiving. They bring a wealth of experience, patience, and empathy to their roles and can get tangible benefits in return. Studies have shown that volunteering can lead to better health outcomes, including reduced risk of mortality and physical functioning limitations, increased physical activity, and improved psychosocial outcomes.

We’ve been proud to partner with nonprofit organizations that recognize the skills and talents of older adults and leverage them to benefit young people. We’re often told by nonprofit leaders and volunteer managers that older adults are often their best, most reliable volunteers. The strongest programs we’ve seen find value in these volunteers, meet them where they are, and work hard to retain them by understanding the needs and perspectives of their older volunteers.

In 2017, we documented findings from a survey of our grantee partners and found that organizations with a high percentage of older volunteers reported retaining volunteers longer. 43 percent of organizations where at least half of their volunteers were over 50 reported retaining volunteers for more than five years on average. In addition, management is key to retaining a strong pool of volunteers. In our survey, organizations with a dedicated volunteer coordinator on staff saw the strongest retention rates.

Those who regularly assessed volunteer satisfaction and directly expressed appreciation for their volunteers also saw higher retention than organizations that didn’t. For organizations where volunteers stayed five years or longer, 71 percent of those nonprofits regularly assessed volunteer satisfaction, called, or wrote to express appreciation, and held volunteer appreciation events. Of organizations where volunteers stayed six months or less, no organization did all three, and 83 percent took only one or none of those actions.

These numbers show both the huge advantage of having older volunteers and the importance of good volunteer management. As our society ages, a growing number of older adults will seek the right opportunity to give back. We believe that every mission-driven organization can benefit from older volunteers, but intentionality is key.

It can be a struggle for organizations to find older volunteers, but word-of-mouth is powerful. We’ve seen many of our partners successfully recruit through existing volunteers, create relationships with networks of retired professionals, and collaborate with local and national organizations.

At the University of California Los Angeles, Generation Xchange, for example, their volunteers are their best recruiters. This program places older adults in elementary classrooms in their immediate communities, mostly in under-resourced neighborhoods in Los Angeles, Calif. Volunteers frequently introduce friends to the program, which has allowed expansion into additional school sites. They deepen their friendships and make new ones as the volunteers meet weekly to discuss their successes, challenges, and classroom strategies and gather for holiday celebrations.

As Generations Xchange knows, the external community can bring volunteers through the door, and building community among organizational staff, volunteers, and even the people they serve keeps them coming back. Organizations that find ways to encourage informal connection see the highest retention rates. Sometimes, this extends beyond program participants and into the community itself.

In Michigan, two men in their 70s volunteer in Glenwood classrooms through an AmeriCorps Seniors program called Senior Neighbors, and their backgrounds are critical to connecting with students and their families. Originally from Congo, Francois Mwabi and Jerome Menyo came to the U.S. with their children and grandchildren after living in a refugee camp. Today, they read stories and play at recess with elementary students, many of whom speak the same languages they do – about a quarter of students at their school are English learners, and many more are multilingual.

In a time when divisions across race, language, and identity are increasingly stark, Francois and Jerome show the students and their families how being multilingual is an asset. Francois worked as a welder in Congo and speaks Swahili, Lingala, and French. Jerome worked as a farmer and youth pastor and speaks Kinyarwanda. Students who speak Swahili and Kinyarwanda are the biggest population of English-language learners at the school, making their contributions even more valuable as students and their families see someone like them working on their behalf.

"Powered By Connection" in Action

As AmeriCorps Seniors and other intergenerational programs demonstrate, these efforts to recruit and retain older volunteers in community-driven ways are worth it.

The AmeriCorps Seniors RSVP program at L.A. Works, a Los Angeles-based organization that mobilizes volunteers to address critical issues, provides a variety of opportunities that engage older adults to connect with youth and young adults through learning, supporting services, and making an impact in their community. Recently, L.A. Works’ AmeriCorps Seniors program and the Families Active in Volunteer Enrichment program teamed up for an intergenerational opportunity benefiting formerly unhoused individuals. Hosted in partnership with the local participatory grantmaking campaign LA2050, nearly 150 older adult and family volunteers put together more than 450 welcome home kits for residents of Alexandria House and Depaul USA – Casa Milagrosa. The event was one of many for longtime volunteer Yolanda Dave, who says volunteering puts things in perspective for her. Intergenerational events like this are especially meaningful for her as a former teacher. “I really want the youth to continue the legacy [of giving back],” she said.

In Fresno, Calif., JC Williams served as an AmeriCorps Seniors volunteer in the Foster Grandparent program at a local Boys & Girls Club for 25 years until he stepped down in January at the age of 94. One of the many young people “Grandpa JC” connected with was Jermaine, a young boy who benefited from JC’s positive and encouraging attitude. Their mutually beneficial relationship continued into adulthood when Jermaine joined the same Boys & Girls Club staff. JC remained a source of encouragement as Jermaine embarked on his career, and Jermaine gave JC rides and ran the occasional errand for him. JC’s enthusiasm for the Foster Grandparent program also extended to his daughter, who signed up when she became eligible at age 55 and served alongside her father.

And in Mount Pleasant, Mich., the AmeriCorps Seniors Foster Grandparent program includes the likes of Rick Fockler, better known as “Grandpa Rick.” While working in third and fourth-grade classes, he became so popular that he started the “Grandpa Rick Book Club” that met during recess. His classroom teacher, Rachel Brandeberry, was impressed that the students were not only willing to give up their recess time to read but also that reading scores shot through the roof as Grandpa Rick asked discussion questions and encouraged students to read aloud. But for Rick, it wasn’t just about helping students with literacy. He simply missed being around his grandchildren and embraced the chance to be around children in his community. “I’m just a normal grandpa trying to brighten these kids' days, and they’ve brightened my life even more,” he said. “The only thing I don’t look forward to is the last day of school.”

These programs, and countless others across the country, show how the power of intergenerational connections is a transformative force that not only enriches the lives of individuals but also strengthens the fabric of our society. This Older Americans Month, the theme “Powered by Connection” is more than just a tagline - it’s a testament to the invaluable contributions of older adults in our communities and a reminder that everyone has a role to play in making our society a better place.

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Trent Stamp has served as CEO of The Eisner Foundation since 2008. Under Trent’s leadership, The Eisner Foundation became the only foundation in the U.S. investing solely in intergenerational solutions, garnering several honors and awards, including Generation United’s Leadership Award.