Volunteer force

United Way’s growing RSVP program keeps hundreds of local seniors active and connected to the community

Jane Blick knows the value of volunteering. The 70-year-old has partnered with her husband Michael, 73, to work with United Way of Marathon County’s Retired & Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) program since it began more than six years ago.

“It gives you a purpose,” Jane says.

Many local men and women ages 55+ have felt that way since RSVP was launched here in October 2010. United Way is able to implement the group with the help of federal grant funding to give seniors in the community a chance to use their skills and experience to make a difference.

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More than 400 retired local volunteers like LuAnn Bradford provided 51,000 hours of service to local schools and nonprofits.

There are many ways seniors can do that, too. Last year, RSVP members volunteering at nonprofit agencies helped more than 200 elderly persons continue to live independently by delivering meals, and transporting them to medical appointments and to do shopping. They also tutored and mentored more than 175 children in area elementary schools.

RSVP volunteers help at food pantries and the warming center, at area hospitals, help with recycling programs and many other community services.

RSVP is a national effort that started in 1971 as community leaders saw an untapped “labor” force: retired people who had no organized way of utilizing their skills and energy, says local RSVP Director Tony Omernik. Since then, RSVP has expanded to 627 communities nationwide, with 18 in Wisconsin.

The program has made a difference. Last year, 412 local volunteers provided 51,048 hours of service at 44 different stations (how the program categorizes venues and opportunities). That’s the equivalent of more than $1.2 million of work, according to Independent Sector, a national coalition of charitable organizations that calculates volunteer value at around $24 an hour.

Last year was the biggest for RSVP in Marathon County. In its six-plus years in the county, nearly 600 RSVP volunteers have contributed more than 214,000 hours of volunteer service.

Staying connected helps the mind and body

RSVP goes beyond volunteering. It also offers members educational programs on well-being, healthy aging and social gatherings. Earlier this month, for example, RSVP hosted a morning Coffee Hour at Monk Botanical Gardens to socialize and explore that nature reserve and its programs. Another Coffee Hour at Stable Hands Equine Therapy Center introduced members to that nonprofit, which serves people with special needs.

RSVP also blood pressure screenings and technology workshops to help seniors keep up with things like smartphone apps, iPads, and email (those tech classes will resume in September).

In May, RSVP hosted a mental health first aid for older adults to promote awareness of the issue. Also, a senior Sunday project in cooperation with area churches promoted awareness of senior independent living support service in Marathon County. “They all support healthy, active living for older adults,” says Omernik of the workshops.

Omernik himself is a retirement options certified coach focusing on helping people transition to retirement. He has developed a presentation that’s available by request to groups and organizations.

It’s all about maintaining connections, and plenty of research showings the health benefits for those who volunteer.

For example, a 2016 study by Harvard Research’s Dr. Eric Kim and Indiana University’s Sara Konrath looked at Americans over age 50, only some of whom did volunteer work in their communities. After adjusting for a wide range of confounding variables, they found that over a two-year period, volunteers were more likely to get flu shots, mammograms, Pap smears, cholesterol tests, and prostate exams—in other words, proactive health measures. Most importantly, volunteering was associated with 38% fewer nights spent in the hospital.

“There’s research I’ve read showing there are significant health benefits that can occur if people volunteer 100 hours or more, that’s the threshold. That’s roughly two hours a week,” Omernik says. “As people get older, they benefit even more from those volunteering opportunities health-wise.”

Jane and Michael Blick both have felt the effects volunteering can have on the mind and body.

They tutor kids after school at West Elementary School in Antigo two to three times a week during the school year, working on everything from math, to reading, to science. Jane also volunteers to maintain the gardens at Monk Gardens and the Woodson Art Museum in Wausau; Michael also delivers for Mobile Meals and drives people to medical appointments and to stores.


Jane Blick volunteering as a an elementary school tutor through the United Way’s RSVP program

When Michael retired nearly seven years ago, both he and Jane were looking to get involved in the community more, so RSVP came along at the perfect time.

“I get the biggest kick out of seeing each kids’ eyes light up and recognize that I’m there to help them. They seem genuinely happy to see you,” Jane says about tutoring. “I love that you get to meet so many new people. You get to know what’s going on in the community.”

Anyone interested to learn more or to join United Way RSVP Marathon County can contact Tony Omernik at 715-298-5721. Also see unitedwaymc.org.