Senior volunteerism enters new phase

RSVP program adapts to updated federal priorities, reduced funding

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

Published:

 

RETIRED SENIOR VOLUNTEER PROGRAM

On the Web:http://hsc-wa.org...

Call: 360-735-3683.

Walk in: 201 N.E. 73rd St. (off Hazel Dell Avenue), Suite 101.

If you’re not 55 or older: You can still volunteer through the Volunteer Center — same place, same phone.

Jerry Kurtti surveyed his kingdom and said he can’t imagine all that good metal and plastic pointlessly stuffing some garbage dump.

Kurtti’s kingdom is a workroom at Empower Up, a nonprofit technology-recycling shop on Fourth Plain Boulevard. On Thursday morning, it was piled high with used computers and busy with volunteers who were disassembling them and passing the hard drives and circuit boards Kurtti’s way.

He demonstrated his careful-but-quick process for this last bit of crucial breakdown — unscrewing obvious screws and locating hidden ones, removing a magnet and separating pieces of plastic and aluminum. He always brings his own motorized screwdriver, he said, because he never wants to make friends with carpal tunnel syndrome.

Kurtti, 72, comes here four days a week and puts in about 20 hours total, he said. He doesn’t have a background in computers, but he’s got a lifetime of work experience, from the Air Force to medical supply purchasing to Kmart, and he’s got a cheerful knack for mentoring young people and managing workflow.

He’s a volunteer. And he’s the backbone of the Empower Up operation, the paid staff said. “He helps train the other volunteers. He has a world of skills. He keeps us going,” said volunteer coordinator Jerry Hatcher.

“I don’t have anything else to do,” confessed the modest Kurtti, who started coming to Empower Up a little over a year ago — and has proven so reliable and motivated, he was honored last month as a Volunteer of the Year by RSVP.

That’s the Retired Senior Volunteer Program, operated locally by the Human Services Council and paid for by the federal Corporation for National Community Service. RSVP is the clearinghouse

that interviewed and vetted Kurtti and sent him to Empower Up.

RSVP was created to put people 55 and older to work meeting community needs and providing enriching experiences. Locally, RSVP has more than 1,000 volunteers that provide an ever-growing core of service at more than 200 schools, nonprofit agencies, government bureaus and elsewhere. The number of volunteer hours provided by RSVP volunteers climbed from nearly 18,000 in one three-month stretch last year to over 80,000 hours between April and June 2011.

(The Human Services Council also operates a Volunteer Center for people between the ages of 18 and 55; both programs are headquartered at 201 N.E. 73rd St., off Hazel Dell Avenue).

Cuts and plans

RSVP recently celebrated its 40th anniversary, according to local manager Michael Holroyd — and that’s just about when changes at the federal level “turned the program upside down,” he said.

Cascading budget cuts and a Congressional mandate to focus on specific areas of national need are forcing RSVP to rethink the way it screens and deploys volunteers, Holroyd said.

“The model for volunteer funding was the same from the 1940s until about a year ago,” Holroyd said. Many nonprofit managers didn’t want to acknowledge it, he said, but he could see that there was going to be a “fundamental shift” in how their programs are supported.

For one thing, the local RSVP absorbed a 20 percent cut, from $90,000 to $72,000, across a budget year that was stretched from 12 to 15 months. That meant making do with less for longer, Holroyd said. Another 10 percent budget cut will take effect on April 1, 2012, he said.

Holroyd, whose background is in education and nonprofit management, said he recently went to a statewide meeting of county-level RSVP managers and found an atmosphere of shock and dread. “What I found is, many nonprofits need business models and educational models that they don’t have. And they need to do strategic planning they don’t really know how to do,” he said. “There are a lot of people who’ve never been trained to plan.”

Holroyd responded to the looming cuts by holding a planning retreat and reducing staff costs via some limited furloughs. Now, he said, Clark County’s RSVP program is “in a good position to ride out this challenging period. We are ahead of the curve.”

From arms to teams

Holroyd said signing up RSVP volunteers “used to be like an arms race.” You just wanted the most. Bigger numbers were always better — they meant a good reputation and the strongest possibility of winning grant dollars.

But as of last February, dollars from the Corporation for National Community Service have new and different strings attached. Volunteer organizations that want to compete for those dollars need to prove they’re meeting newly defined federal priorities. They are:

• Disaster preparedness, services and recovery.

• Economic opportunity for the disadvantaged, including access to services, employment and housing.

• Education, especially for at-risk youth.

• Environmental stewardship, including efficiency, conservation and behavioral change.

• Healthy futures, including access to health care, improving fitness and nutrition, and increasing senior citizen independence.

• Unmet needs of veterans and military families.

According to the CNCS website, these priorities were set in accordance with the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act of 2009, which reauthorized and expanded the AmeriCorps service program started in 1993.

Holroyd said the Human Services Council has adopted three of these priorities — disasters, education and veterans — as its top goals for most local RSVP volunteers.

“It’s no longer an arms race,” Holroyd said. Instead, he said, RSVP will develop smaller, smarter teams of volunteers that bring skills to the table.

“Teams are more efficient, and we can support them more efficiently,” he said. Those teams will be built, assigned and evaluated based on those three national priorities. It’s less about big numbers and more about demonstrably achieving goals, he said.

It’ll require more careful screening and vetting than ever before, he said. And it means plenty of paperwork for Washington, D.C.

“We need to evaluate and measure our impact to prove we’re doing meaningful work,” Holroyd said.

Holroyd said he expects ultimately to devote about 60 percent of RSVP’s resources to those three national priorities — and 40 percent to more locally determined priorities.

For example, he said, there’s Pearson Air Museum. It made requests for all sorts of volunteers, skilled and unskilled, from museum docents and gift shop cashiers to electricians and mechanics. Holroyd said some bureaucrat has already decided Pearson doesn’t fit very well with any national RSVP priorities, while Holroyd believes it fits perfectly with the educational piece.

The bottom line, he said, is that Pearson is a “unique local gem” that deserves volunteer support one way or another. It will continue to get volunteers from RSVP.

More Jerrys

It may no longer be an arms race, but RSVP remains interested in signing up tons of volunteers, skilled or not, Holroyd said. Kurtti has no background in computers, but he’s been a total success at the Empower Up shop, folks there say — mostly because of his positive spirit and lifetime of experience.

“Jerry is from the can-do generation,” said Jhasen Cooper, Empower Up’s recycling manager. “They’ve been forced out of the workforce, but they have so much to offer.” (Plus, with a lifetime of experience, Kurtti loves to talk politics and has some strong opinions — but we won’t go there).

“For a small nonprofit like this, RSVP makes a significant impact,” said Empower Up interim director Shelley Caldwell — who added that the place has a paid staff of four and a total volunteer stable of 50 to 60, from RSVP and elsewhere. Part of Kurtti’s success is the way he supervises and mentors the other volunteers, who come from everywhere from high schools and vocational programs to Goodwill Industries.

“I wish we had more Jerrys,” said Caldwell.

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; http://www.twitter.com/col_nonprofits;">www.twitter.com/col_nonprofits;">http://www.twitter.com/col_nonprofits;scott.hewitt@columbian.com.