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The Third Act: older adults volunteering locally

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By DEBORAH E. LANS

Part 1

GHENT – Americans are living about 25 years longer now than 100 years ago, and well past conventional retirement age. How we spend those years has been dubbed the Third Act – the stage after development/education and devotion to career/raising a family.

Historically, retirement meant withdrawal from civic life, according to “Bowling Alone” author Robert Putnam. With Columbia County the second “oldest” county in the state, and more than a quarter of our citizens over 65, is that the current state of affairs?

The short answer is no. While county level statistics do not answer the question, nationally, more than 30% of persons over 65 volunteer — women at about twice the rate of men. A higher level of volunteerism exists only in the group in their 20s. Moreover, volunteering among older adults is growing.

The top cause (religion aside) is homelessness and hunger.

The bland bureaucratic term “food insecurity” is a standard measure of hunger. A family is “insecure” when it has difficulty in providing sufficient food because of a lack of resources, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In Columbia County 11.5% of the population, and 16.5% of children are “insecure.” Adding to economic challenges, in rural communities hunger is increased by the difficulty in getting to the limited number of food stores.

Early in the pandemic, Carole Clark and Pam Kline, two county residents, recognized the needs of the community and started the Columbia County Recovery Kitchen (CCRK). Ms. Clarke had deep roots in feeding people, having run Charleston restaurant in Hudson from 1987 until 2006, among other things. Ms. Kline had founded, run and ultimately sold Traditions, a luxury linens business in the county.

Ms. Clarke had seen, even among her restaurant workers in pre-pandemic years, that hunger was an abiding issue. The pandemic would obviously only make matters worse. She conceived a food delivery service, and reached out for help to her friend Ms. Kline. For Ms. Kline “volunteering was in my DNA,” and with her business sold and her husband recently having died, she was “questioning her purpose in life.”

The two swiftly translated idea into action. They ran a GoFundMe campaign to raise initial funds, got the necessary government approvals, connected with the kitchen at Christ Church in Hudson, found a fiscal sponsor, recruited two chefs whose restaurants were closed and connected with farms that Ms. Clarke had known from her restaurant days.

The first week CCRK was open, it served 200 meals.

The design of the program fit the moment perfectly. Food delivery was touchless – a volunteer driver would pick up the packaged-up meals at the kitchen and drop them off at the recipient’s front door, with all the steps managed by telephone. Volunteers eager to get out and help their neighbors became delivery drivers.

Today, three and one-half years later, the organization is still powered by volunteers, including some 80 drivers, mostly retirees. The only paid employees are the chefs, Tommy Carlucci and Kathy Stillman. CCRK serves 1,200 meals per week and hopes to increase that number. It serves individuals as well as the Boys & Girls Club, Hudson’s Head Start programs and others, with some 30 farms donating food. Recipients are identified through social service agencies, the Sanctuary Movement and self-referral.

If anything, the need is greater today, as poverty rates have increased since the cessation of pandemic funding to individuals. Nearly 40% of county residents earn less than what is considered a “survival budget for a family of four.”

CCRK’s main funding source is individual donations, most in the range of $25-50. The first “customer” of CCRK returned two years later to make a donation of $100.

For Tommy Carlucci, CCRK’s chef, earlier work he had done at a “soup kitchen” in Stottville opened his eyes to the face of hunger in the area. He was “shocked” to see that everyone “looked like me. It wasn’t only the homeless, elderly and disabled who needed help.” The long-time chef sees his work at CCRK as his final act, and his ambition is to turn out 6,000 meals/week, which he feels would provide at least one meal/day to all those in need.

Two of CCRK’s volunteers are Steve and Helen Lobel of Austerlitz. Both retired executives had volunteered for years as mentors at the Chatham Middle School and in other community positions, but the work with CCRK was especially powerful. (Ms. Lobel has since joined the CCRK Board.) “The scope of hunger and poverty that we saw as we began to deliver food was unexpected and stunning,” according to Ms. Lobel. Moreover, the work expanded their understanding of the county, “taking us out of our usual social circle and allowing us to meet others in our community,” said Mr. Lobel.

The county’s Office for the Aging runs a similar, “meals on wheels” program but only for seniors. It serves 1,400-1,500 meals in a week, and has about 60 volunteers who deliver the food and, while at a home, make quick “well checks” on recipients. The reach of the program is limited mainly by the number of volunteers available to drive the food to its destinations. Trained dietitians plan the meals, which are prepared by staff cooks. Some are cold but most are hot.

As CCRK’s Ms. Kline notes, volunteers do not simply help others. Mayo Clinic studies show that volunteering offers significant health benefits for older adults: lowering rates of anxiety and depression, feelings of isolation and stress and stress-related conditions like heart disease and stroke and, even, mortality rates. Volunteers acquire a greater sense of meaning and purpose, can nurture new and existing relationships, and have increased social interactions.

And, we all benefit when some volunteer: a society of “virtuous and connected individuals” in turn increases the productivity of individuals and groups, knitting individuals together by nurturing a sense of mutual trust and tolerance for differences, according to scholar Robert Putnam.

A sampling of CCRK’s fare from one week in late September: chili with beef from Hartwick Farm, over yellow rice with jack cheese and salsa; Mediterranean vegetarian pasta with feta, capers, roasted peppers, tomatoes; broccoli and cannelli beans, with olive oil and basil from Carole Clark’s garden; donated Letterbox Farm chicken breasts diced with mushroom/zucchini cream sauce and mashed potatoes; Goffle Road Farm roasted chicken with potatoes and donated Common Hands Farm kale and chard; Hartwick Farm ground beef goulash (tomatoes, onions and peppers) over egg noodles; and, for Hudson Head Start, everything from whole grain mac and cheese to halal chicken tacos.

Next week: more on volunteering and the new upstate chapter of author/environmentalist Bill McKibben’s Third Act.

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