Go to any nonprofit meeting in Southeast Alaska, and you’ll probably find at least one senior citizen board member. Others help out at fundraisers, baking cookies, sewing quilts, selling raffle tickets or cleaning up after an event.
As part of CoastAlaska’s Aging Southeast series, KRBD’s Leila Kheiry talked to a few of the region’s active senior volunteers about what they do for their communities, and why.
Fred John gives through music.
The Tlingit and Tsimshian elder has been playing music most of his 87 years, and much of that time has been spent performing gospel and worship songs. He traveled extensively in his youth with a church group, and still is happy to plug in a guitar and belt out a tune whenever he’s asked.
John has been honored with various awards that hang on the wall of his home, on the outskirts of the Village of Saxman, just a few minutes’ drive from Ketchikan.
“This I got from the Salvation Army, called Soldier of the Year,” he said, pointing out a framed certificate.
Another plaque was handed to John by Sen. Lisa Murkowski in 2010. It’s a Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce award recognizing his volunteer work at the local jail. He still volunteers there. Every week, he heads to the Ketchikan Correctional Center to play for inmates.
And John’s efforts have made a difference. He shows me a photograph from the newspaper showing him performing for a group of yellow-jumpsuit-clad men, and points to three of them.
“They’re playing guitar with me in the church now,” he said. “They gave their hearts to the lord. This guy, and this guy here, and this guy here. And I’m standing right there. And they’re doing good.”
How to provide services for older Alaskans is an ongoing discussion statewide and within individual communities. But, like John, many of Alaska’s elders give back to their home towns through volunteer work.
Ketchikan’s Ed Zastrow is another active senior. The 80-year-old frontman for the local AARP chapter advocates for retired residents. He helped coordinate and publish a directory of local senior services, and he was the lead organizer for Pioneer Heights, a senior housing project.
Zastrow is quick to point to other older residents who contribute.
“On a local level it’s almost incredible,” he said.
Through his volunteer work as the AARP coordinator, Zastrow has to fill out a form every year estimating the hours donated by older volunteers in Ketchikan.
“And last year, we put in a little over 2,700 hours of volunteer work,” he said.
More than 1,400 seniors are registered for the Ketchikan Gateway Borough senior tax exemption, which gives a pretty good idea of how many live here. And if Ketchikan’s statistics follow the rest of the state, a third donate their time.
Conor Bell, an economist with the state Department of Labor, said about 30 percent of Alaskans 65 to 74 volunteer.
“That’s lower than the average rate, but those who do volunteer do so at much greater volume,” he said.
Bell said national statistics show that while there are fewer donating their time, seniors volunteer put in about double the hours of other age groups.
In Petersburg, Al and Sally Dwyer put in above-average hours, playing music and promoting the town’s Norwegian heritage.
Al, the former mayor, has been a volunteer DJ at KFSK public radio for about a dozen years. The 74-year-old also plays piano and sings at the long-term care and assisted living facilities. He was recruited for that gig, and said it initially didn’t go well.
“The first time I went to assisted living, they told everybody in the place about it, and there was probably 20 people there, all in wheelchairs,” he said.
“The piano was facing the wall, so I can’t see them. After about 10 minutes, I turned around and there was only six or seven left.”
Al Dwyer said the residents eventually got to know his act and now are more likely to stick around.
He said his wife, Sally, 63, is the real volunteer of the family. She’s been volunteering for the past year at almost the equivalent of a full-time job – working with another volunteer to restore the 104-year-old Sons of Norway building.
“We were renovating it, and it turned out to be restoration rather than renovating, and it’s required 20-30 hours a week at the hall, painting or sanding or lifting boards or stacking lumber. That sort of stuff,” she said.
A lot of Sally Dwyer’s volunteer work is focused on maintaining and celebrating Petersburg’s strong Norwegian roots. But, she said she contributes to pretty much any event or group. She bakes, she sews, she quilts.
“I did four last year – quilts for fundraisers,” she said. “I’m working on one right now for the jazz band, because they want to travel to California in the spring.”
So, why? Why do these seniors donate so much time and energy?
Ed Zastrow said it’s a desire to give back to society.
“There’s hundreds and hundreds of hours put in by seniors, and I think the seniors that do that do it graciously because they want to and, like myself, I feel like I owe the community something,” he said.
Sally Dwyer said she hopes to make a difference.
“Like, with making a quilt for the jazz kids. Maybe one of the kids will get inspired and end up being a composer or a musician that does it for his living. Or one of the kids decides to go to music school and come back and teach our kids,” she said. “You just never know how your little, tiny influence will help along the way.”
Al Dwyer said it just feels good to help.
“You do something for somebody and they feel good about it, and they tell you that and you feel good,” he said. “It’s a good feeling to give.”
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