Sensational Seniors

Larry Nagengast

, Community

When it comes to charitable contributions, many people find that a gift of time is more meaningful and can have a greater impact than a cash contribution. In the coming months, Out & About will continue to profile some of these volunteers, along with the programs in which they serve. The series is being developed in cooperation with the state Office of Volunteerism, and we hope it will show readers how they can improve their communities by volunteering their time and talents. For information about volunteering opportunities throughout the state, visit VolunteerDelaware.org. For the 50+ program, there’s a special page on the website, volunteerdelaware.org/volunteer-delaware50.

Through the state’s 50+ program, volunteers are using their retirement years to support nearly 200 community organizations

After a career in the National Guard, Al Grimminger now works nearly full time—and earns not a penny—helping homeless veterans get back on their feet.

After years as a geriatric nurse, Gloria Holland now uses her love of music to bring cheerful notes into nursing homes and senior centers.

After first serving as a Big Brother while still in college, Don Lanspery is back where he started a half-century ago, mentoring a 9-year-old and helping kids learn to read.

Whether it’s showing peers how to keep their balance, guiding theatergoers to their seats at The Grand or helping with kids’ activities at Hagley Museum, Olga Crowther seems to be volunteering everywhere.

All four are senior volunteers, performing their labors of love through the Volunteer Delaware 50+ program.

“They’re not looking for anything in return. They just want to give,” says Susan Fox, the 50+ coordinator for New Castle County.

The 50+ program operates through the state Office of Volunteer Services. It’s a special program of the office, geared to promote volunteer service within the 50 and older demographic. Operating in New Castle and Sussex counties, the program has about 2,500 volunteers who offer their support to nearly 200 community organizations. (A similar but separate program, financed largely through federal funds, operates in Kent County out of the Modern Maturity Center in Dover.)

It’s easy to get started. Go to the 50+ link on the Volunteer Delaware website (volunteerdelaware.org/volunteer-delaware50), fill out the enrollment form, then contact the office closest to your home. You can search for volunteer opportunities on the website or a volunteer specialist will help you find opportunities that match your interests.

That’s how Crowther, a 67-year-old from Wilmington, immersed herself in community service. A volunteer usher at the Grand since 1999, she retired 10 years later from AstraZeneca, where she had worked as a microbiologist and a quality control manager. 

“I always believed that nonprofit institutions needed help. The more you can do for them, the better our community is,” she says. She had heard about 50+ (then known as RSVP), so she signed up and started getting regular notices about volunteer opportunities.

“I trust them,” she says. “I know that I will get to help in reliable, safe places.”

First came a stint working in the office of Habitat for Humanity of New Castle County. Other gigs followed, including some time at the Delaware Art Museum. Now she pitches in at the Grand, at Hagley, with the Bootless Theater of St. Stephen’s Lutheran Church, and the Friends of Brandywine Park. She’s also an instructor in A Matter of Balance classes, a fall-prevention program that 50+ offers at hospitals and community centers. (By the way, Crowther is still working—holding down a part-time job as an advocate for Spanish-speaking individuals involved in domestic violence cases in Family Court.)

No matter what the assignment, Crowther says, “I get a feeling of euphoria knowing I’m doing something good.”

Using the website isn’t the only way to find a place to volunteer.

In the fall of 2015, Grimminger, a 77-year-old Middletown-area resident, saw an article in a weekly newspaper about a shelter that was being planned for homeless veterans. A week or so later, after going to church on Sunday, he and his wife drove by the new Victory Village, on Port Penn Road outside of Middletown, to see what was going on.

100 Hours a Month

Music ministry is Gloria Holland’s way of giving back. She is director of the glee club at Sussex CHEER Center in Georgetown. Photo provided by Volunteer Delaware

“The next thing I know, I’m out there with my mower cutting grass,” he says. “When I started out, the grass was knee-high. It took a week or so to get it down.”

Grimminger’s involvement grew from there. Soon he was doing all sorts of projects to get the facility in shape before it opened in August 2016. “Now I’m the facilities manager,” he says, noting that he has cut down his workload from 120 to 140 hours a month to a mere 100 or so. “It’s almost like a fulltime job,” he says.

Grimminger, who spent 43 years in both military and civilian roles with the Delaware National Guard, has a natural empathy for servicemen and recognizes the importance of Victory Village’s mission: to get homeless veterans off the street and into a transitional environment where they can stay for up to two years as they rebuild their lives.

Victory Village can house up to 24 men, and there’s talk of refurbishing a bungalow on the property to provide housing for homeless female veterans.

Victory Village isn’t Grimminger’s first venture into volunteering, but it’s definitely the most intense. “My wife and I have volunteered in other places,” he says, “doing mailings for the March of Dimes, the Red Cross, things like that.”

For Gloria Holland, the route to volunteering came through her senior center, the Sussex CHEER Center in Georgetown. Ten years ago, she joined the center’s glee club, the CHEERful Notes. Three years ago, she became its director.

“Many of the signers are much older than me,” says Holland, 72, who lives in Magnolia. “To them, I’m the new kid on the block.”

Having spent much of her adult life as a geriatric nurse, Holland developed an appreciation for the needs of senior citizens, and she savors the opportunity not only to lead other seniors in song but also to take their show on the road, performing at nursing homes and senior centers throughout Sussex County.

The glee club has a roster of 25 members, and they keep their Tuesdays open for rehearsals and performances. Depending on the date and location, anywhere between nine and 20 members will turn out, she says.

Performances run 30 to 45 minutes, and include a mix of singalongs and both secular and gospel music, she says.

“At nursing homes, a lot of the people don’t have visitors. Some can’t tell you where they are, and they can’t remember what they had for breakfast. But when the music starts, they know every word,” she says. “For a few minutes, they remember where they used to be. That’s the joy of it.”

Open Mic Gospel Music

In addition, Holland, who has been playing piano since she was 12, leads another music ministry, an open mic night of gospel music every other Friday at the Petersburg Little Grand Ole Opry in Willow Grove, near Camden.

“I love music,” she says. “My son [Jeffrey] teases me. He’s says, ‘you’re out now more than when you were nursing, and you’re not getting paid.”

But Holland is pleased that she’s able to get out and spread joy through music, and, like many other senior volunteers, build new friendships in the process. “I lost my husband nine years ago, but I keep busy,” she says. “I may be alone, but I’m not lonely.”

Much like Holland, Don Lanspery experienced a personal loss that pointed him toward volunteering. Lanspery’s father died when he was 17, but he overcame that loss and went on to college. As a senior, en route to a career as a social worker, he began mentoring a child through the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program.

After moving from Maryland to Harrington in 2010, Lanspery, now 75, got into volunteering big time.

In 1999, he contracted septicemia, and the bacterial infection in his bloodstream resulted in the amputation of his fingers and toes. Then, after moving to Delaware, he volunteered to make a presentation at a disability awareness program at a school in Milford.

“I went to the school, I saw other people volunteering, I saw them giving back,” he says, “and I realized I’d rather do this than go to a senior center.”

Well, Lanspery does spend some of his leisure time at a senior center, but he and his wife Laura have been volunteering for seven years with Read Aloud Delaware, reading to pre-kindergarten children at the Morris Early Childhood Center in Lincoln. And for the last three years he has mentored a student at Lula Ross Elementary School in Milford through the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program. “Kids need more friends,” he says.

Doing volunteer work with children “is a very rewarding, self-satisfying experience,” he says. “You can see that you’re making a difference. You can see change in a positive light.”

50+ volunteers “are looking for something meaningful for themselves and want to use their skills to benefit the community,” says Fox. While many volunteers wish to continue using the skills they developed over decades in the workplace, she says others see volunteering as a learning experience, a chance to do something totally different from their business careers. “Most important, they want to give,” she says.

Ann Gorrin, 50+ coordinator in Sussex County, suggests that volunteers start slowly. “A lot of times, people want to jump in and help with everything. It’s better to take on one thing at a time, see how you like it, and switch to something else if it doesn’t work out,” she says. “Start slowly and find your niche.”

Lanspery invited newbies to watch him work. “Sometimes people are fearful of what they’re getting into. I encourage them to come along with me, sit by me while I’m reading to children or talking to my little brother,” he says.

If they like what they’re doing, they might turn out like Olga Crowther, putting the pedal to the metal and volunteering practically non-stop. “I get full of euphoria when I do something good,” she says.

So, what do you think? Please comment below.