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Friday, September 29, 2023
Sept. 29, 2023

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Program matches senior citizens with part-time jobs in Clark County

Goodwill’s Senior Community Service Employment Program helps low income seniors return to workforce

By , Columbian staff writer
3 Photos
Dairn Woodman, left, and art instructor Margi Russo throw covers onto conference tables Monday at the Luepke Center. Woodman is part of Goodwill's Senior Community Service Employment Program, which trains and employs those older than 55 at nonprofits or government agencies part time.
Dairn Woodman, left, and art instructor Margi Russo throw covers onto conference tables Monday at the Luepke Center. Woodman is part of Goodwill's Senior Community Service Employment Program, which trains and employs those older than 55 at nonprofits or government agencies part time. (Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Not a single person passed through the atrium without a warm welcome from Dairn Woodman, 73, who smiled as she greeted those headed for the Luepke Center’s monthly painting club.

Woodman works the front desk at the center, acting as a liaison for the center’s array of activities, from American style mah-jongg to folk dancing tailored to those “50 and better.”

Of all her duties, answering the phone is her favorite.

“Some people are not exactly sure what they want,” she said. “But then I go over all our clubs and let them know that this one (like folk dancing) is really welcoming, it doesn’t matter if you’ve got four left feet. You just ask enough questions to kind of wiggle through and figure out what they want.”

Woodman’s employment is sponsored by Goodwill’s Senior Community Service Employment Program, a four-year training program for those 55 and older with low incomes looking to return to the workforce. Participants are placed in short-term positions at partner nonprofits and government organizations dubbed host agencies, where they gain on-the-job experience and earn minimum wage.

Woodman started the program in 2018 after her husband, previously a dentist, became ill and was unable to work.

To learn more

For more information about Goodwill’s Senior Community Service Employment Program visit https://goodwillwa.org/career-pathways/job-training/scsep/.

For questions contact Brinda Wood, Goodwill program employment specialist, at brindaw@goodwillwa.org or 360-759-4309.

“I was in between jobs and needing a job,” she said. “I talked to one of the counselors at Goodwill, and she said have you ever thought about (our employment program)? I didn’t even know the program existed.”

To determine eligibility, Goodwill utilizes a family income worksheet that calculates retirement funds, 75 percent of Social Security benefits, education assistance and other things. An individual’s income must fall under $16,987 annually, 125 percent of the federal poverty level, and fall into at least one of seven categories, including having a disability, veteran status, or at risk of homelessness.

As part of a Title IV program, it does not consider veteran’s payments, disability or general assistance for eligibility, though it asks for this information on the worksheet for record-keeping.

Program assignments are accompanied by mandatory online classes specializing in technology, math, equity and inclusion practices and a variety of other job-specific workshops. Participants are also required to keep and update an individual employment plan, entailing employment goals based on their interests and workplace preferences.

Brinda Wood is Goodwill’s employment specialist for the program’s Clark County and Skamania chapters. Prior to the pandemic, the program had around 25 partner agencies, she said, while now there are only six.

“I’ve had to leave the people I do have in the program in the same host agency all the way through so far,” Wood said. “Before this happened, we tried to rotate them every six months or a year so that they could get different skills from different places.”

Meals on Wheels, The Humane Society for Southwest Washington, ReTails Thrift Store, Lifeline Connections, Luepke Senior Center, Skamania Senior Services and the Fort Vancouver Regional Library are the program’s current partners.

Participation in the program has also seen a decline due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Before March 2020, the program held up to 40 people, Wood said. Despite the benefits the program offers, as of right now only 13 are enrolled.

A booming workforce

In the next two years, those 65 or older are expected to grow in workforce participation more than any other age group.

A 2017 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics study showed that those 55 or older made up 22 percent of the workforce in 2016, up from 17 percent in 2006. It projected that from 2014 to 2024, those ages 65 to 74 would grow from making up 22 percent to 25 percent of the workforce.

In comparison, the labor force is estimated to grow 5 percent as a whole during the same time.

The spike is in part due to aging baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964.

With inflation pushing up the average cost of living, Social Security is becoming increasingly inadequate in retirement. As of July, the average monthly Social Security check was $1,625 per month, totaling $19,500 per year. It is significantly lower for widows and the disabled, who receive on average $15,960 per year. The estimated average cost of living for one person in Vancouver is $1,932 per month with rent, $23,184 per year, according to livingcost.org, an online crowd source database.

The Goodwill program most notably benefits those widowed or disabled, who on average receive 18 percent less in Social Security benefits than other retirees their age.

Clyde Root, 68, found the program in 2019 after searching online for employment options for those disabled and of senior citizen age. Unable to work his warehouse job anymore due to two bad knees, Root collaborated with Wood to find the right spot for him, eventually landing him at ReTails Thrift Store. Today, he works there in a permanent position since his completion of the program.

“It’s been a lifesaver to tell you,” he said. “The money’s been helping me going into money for a new computer, and monitor, and have a little bit better quality of living.”

Bias in numerals

As they return to the workforce, many older employees find themselves confronted with ageism. Claire Close is a Goodwill program alumni now employed by a counseling office in Fisher’s Landing. At 69 years old, she said prior to Goodwill she experienced, more than once, an employer passing her over because of her age.

“I was in the second interview for this job,” Close said. “I thought I had aced the first interview and I thought this one was going well, until at one point after a question the lady looked at me, her face stone cold, she said: ‘we want someone with longevity.’ I didn’t get the position.”

The Val Ogden Center, a vocational rehabilitation program that partners with the Goodwill program, helps people transition back to the workforce. The center offers a broad collaboration of workshop classes, resume assistance, computer labs and peer support for those who have experienced mental health, addiction issues, or have gaps in their years of work.

“There’s ageism that we have to look out for, and hopefully employers are wary about that, but I think it’s just kind of a bias that some folks have,” said Sarah Bowens, the center’s program director. “When people are filling out applications and doing their resumes, I really try to encourage them not to put something on there that’s going to really identify their age.”

Bowens said she does this for all participants, though particularly for those 55 or older, she recommends they go back no more than 10 years in their employment history.

Looking forward

In addition to helping her regaining her footing in the workforce, the employment program has surrounded Woodman with support in the form of new friends.

“I’ve met a lot of people here that have helped me see that going forward is better than just looking at the past,” Woodman said.

She’s not the only one. For many seniors who have had difficulty searching for a job, the program reignites a sense of community and self-sufficiency.

“Brinda is kind of like our den mother,” Close said about the program director. “She’s a doll, she’ll go to bat for you, and she believes in people but she’s going to hold you accountable.”

As COVID-19 regulations continue to ease up, Woods said she anticipates re-signing contracts with previous and new host agencies to expand the program’s capacity to its pre-pandemic proportions. The program is currently accepting applicants, she said.

Wood encourages those older than 55 in search of a job to review the prerequisites on Goodwill’s Senior Community Service Employment Program website and give her a call at 360-759-4309 if they meet the program requirements.

Columbian staff writer