seniors lead in volunteerism

Three years ago, when Jackee Cannino of Somers retired, she became one of 850 active volunteers making a difference in Westchester through RSVP of Westchester (Retired and Senior Volunteer Program) and its umbrella organization Volunteer New York!

And while the pandemic has affected some of her volunteering efforts, it hasn’t dampened her commitment, enthusiasm and willingness to help out wherever needed. The former educator, who spent 44 years as a teacher and school administrator, is still providing rides to ages 60 and older through RideConnect, a non-profit partner of RSVP of Westchester.

“I’m a people person,” Cannino says. “And the people I have met while being a driver are some of the most incredible, intelligent, gifted, professional and interesting people you could ever hope to meet. I drove one man who is 102 years old and is still so active.”

Devoting 15 hours a week to RSVP, Cannino is just one of many older Westchester County residents who volunteer, some of them logging 20 or more hours weekly. They love what they do, and although the pandemic has curtailed most face-to-face contact with many of those they help, the volunteers continue to do a lot of behind-the-scenes work. Cannino, for instance, spends time each week on Zoom meetings for her various volunteer commitments with RSVP, and she is now on their advisory committee.

RSVP of Westchester Director Wendy Armstrong notes there are scores of volunteer opportunities, even in the midst of the current health crisis. “Every one of the organizations we work with consistently needs volunteers,” she says. “Seniors bring a lot to the table. They have a wide range of past experiences and volunteering lets them use their skills to effect change and to feel engaged.”

While some volunteer positions have disappeared, many others remain open. “A lot of the educational opportunities can be done over the phone or on Zoom,” Armstrong says. “And we still need drivers to help out. We also have an active Zoom program so volunteers can work with children and in other educational opportunities. We have tech teams that can help seniors learn to use the software.”

Most of the RSVP of Westchester volunteers are in their 70s, observes Armstrong, followed by people in their 60s and in their 80s. “Some are still actively volunteering at age 90,” she marvels.

For Cannino, retirement was short-lived. Accustomed to driving 80 miles a day round-trip to her job in the Bronx, where she worked with special needs students, she missed the personal contact with people and began volunteering just a few months after retiring.

RideConnect, a not-for-profit program of Family Services of Westchester, has continued to serve the senior community during the pandemic – with open arms and hearts. Over 600 volunteers signed up to help with their Shop and Drop program. In the course of three months, drivers delivered over 9,000 meals and groceries, “all because of the kindness of volunteers of all ages – from high school and all the way up,” says RideConnect Director Karen Ganis.

Initially working about 15 hours a week as a volunteer driver with RideConnect, she involved herself with other projects, and was then asked to be on RSVP’s advisory committee. “We meet every three months – now virtually,” Cannino explains. “The pandemic slowed things down a little, but we still are able to do a lot. We plan events to support our volunteers and we schedule speakers. We didn’t have to stop volunteering.”

“We try to keep the lines of communication open virtually between our volunteers and those who need help,” she says. “And people could not be more appreciative. It takes up time. And it can take a couple of hours if you drive someone to the doctor and then wait for them to be seen before driving them back [home]. But it didn’t take away anything from the quality of my life – while definitely increasing the quality of life for someone else.”
Joe Rodriguez was also an educator: a teacher, an assistant principal and a principal in various schools in the metro area before retiring in 2018. The Eastchester resident had been volunteering for some years, but took on more commitments post-retirement.

At RSVP of Westchester, he’s been a literacy mentor, a driver with RideConnect, and a participant in Conversation Partners. “For Conversation Partners, we would meet up with a student learning English and just converse with them,” he recalls. “You meet such interesting people, and you learn a lot. It’s amazing what you learn.”

The pandemic has halted some of the programs Rodriguez used to work with but he still delivers food every Thursday through RideConnect. He and the other volunteer drivers pick up the packaged food from a food bank and then drive it to families in need. “It’s just nice to help people,” he says. “And I like to lend a hand.”

Duke Searles, the food pantry manager for VA Hudson Valley Health Care, began as a volunteer 21 years ago. The disabled Vietnam veteran, who served from 1967 to 1968, suffered from PTSD and a substance abuse disorder after he was discharged from the military. He struggled, enduring homelessness and hopelessness before getting into a rehab program in 1999 when he was 53. Soon after, he began work at the Montrose VA Food Pantry, picking up food and distributing it. Now 74, he is the supervisor, administrator, and manager of the food pantry.

While it has been a source of frustration for him that the pantry isn’t able to open up more than two days a week [during the pandemic], he is still working at least 15 hours a week. “Volunteering is my way of giving back,” says the married father of two grown children. “I got the help I needed – when I needed it – by very qualified people. I know how much veterans need this service.” Searles was awarded the Volunteer New York! Transformational Award at the organization’s (virtual) service awards fundraiser in April of 2020.

For volunteers like Searles, Cannino and Rodriguez, volunteering is more than an opportunity to help others, it is a way to improve their own lives, they say. Of the volunteers, Armstrong praises them as smart, savvy, patient and good listeners. She adds, “Our volunteers get to stay engaged and be part of something bigger.”

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