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  • Lisa Jevens

Giving Back: Volunteers make an impact at home and around the world

Did you know that one out of every four seniors volunteers for at least one organization or cause?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 26 percent of those ages 55-64, and 24 percent of those over 65, did so in 2013.

This comes as no surprise to Pat Fiorio, Director of Volunteer Services at Westminster Place in Evanston. She says more than 100 of the community's 500 residents currently volunteer, either where they live, at an outside organization, or both.

Fiorio says many residents are members of the Greatest Generation, who lived through the Depression and World War II, so it's in their DNA.

So when you see a senior volunteer at work at many of today's successful charitable organizations or volunteer projects, they just might be the person who started the whole thing, or have been working there from the beginning.

The 'pill bottle lady'

Era Pennell, 91, is a Westminster Place resident who decided to make a difference right from her own living room.

In 2007 she saw an article in her church newsletter about the need in developing countries for something we take for granted here: plastic pill bottles.

"Clinics receive medicines from manufacturers in large batches and they have no secure way to dispense them to patients," she explains. "In the old days, we used to receive pills in a paper bag. That doesn't work in hot or humid places. Nor does it keep it safe from children. They need to keep it dry and clean and protected."

The program was calling for folks to collect, clean and ship bottles to International Health Care Foundation in Searcy, Ark.

"I thought, 'I could do that,'" Pennell says.

She told her neighbor, and before long bags of pill bottles were appearing at her apartment door. Another resident, Bill Garrison, volunteered to remove the labels from the bottles and wash them. Soon other local businesses and organizations joined in the collecting.

At last count, Pennell and her helpers had sorted, boxed and shipped approximately 19,000 bottles. They have received 7,000 more since January.

"I'm now known as the pill bottle lady," Pennell says.

Mats to doll houses

Another Westminster Place resident, Irene Borgerson, 85, took another item typically destined for the landfill — plastic store bags — and gave them new life. About four years ago, she learned about how other groups were cutting the bags into strips, twisting them into plastic yarn, or "plarn," and crocheting them into waterproof sleeping mats for the homeless.

"I thought it was something good for older people to do because many know how to crochet, and something that those who are not driving anymore could do to help the homeless," she says.

Others joined in, and the group made nine mats a month for four years, which is a lot considering it takes about 50 hours to make one mat, Borgerson says.

The project ended in February, as the amount of space needed to store the massive amounts of plastic bags was too great. (It takes about 500 bags to make one 6' x 3' mat.) Also, "most of the original group had to drop out because it was too hard on their hands," Borgerson says. "Still, that's a lot of bags taken out of landfills and the environment."

Now Borgerson has more time to work on her other volunteer project: creating one-of-a-kind dollhouses that are raffled off at the annual holiday charity bazaar. The dollhouses are her late husband's legacy, which she carries on with her son. They make a different style every year, including the furnishings. She says each dollhouse brings in about $600-$700 a year.

The Uber-Volunteer

Jody Hart, 80, of Peace Village in Palos Park, is what you would call an uber-volunteer. At last count she had five volunteer gigs going, ranging from running the Peace Village library and movie nights, to helping a local 4th grade class, to assisting prisoners with a bible study correspondence course. She also works at a local thrift store sorting clothing once a week.

The program at Palos West Elementary especially appealed to her because each 4th grader is paired with a senior. The two became pen pals over the course of the year. It helps the kids learn to read, write, type, and communicate, Hart says.

Hart enjoys telling students about her childhood in Mexico, where her father was a mining engineer and she attended a one-room school with only one other boy in her grade.

"I tell them about the traditions we had and how it is different there," she says. "They write about books they have read, things they do, people who visit the school, and animals. Some don't have local grandparents, so this is nice for them."

The first Candy Days

Smith Village resident Marge Murphy got the first Candy Days off the ground in 1984. Candy Days is the popular fundraiser for Misericordia, which serves adults and children with disabilities. A candy maker — currently Jelly Belly, formerly Fannie Mae — donates more than a million pieces of candy, and 10,000 volunteers deploy from the Wisconsin to Indiana borders to entice donors with the sweet treats.

Back in 1984, Murphy ran Misericordia's development office, and was charged with figuring out how to make an operation like Candy Days work.

"I just took a map and drew circles at different points and started looking for people to fill in those circles," she says.

Thirty years later, Candy Days is still going strong. It netted $1.6 million in 2013.

Since retiring in 2008, Murphy has joined Misericordia's 250 weekly volunteers, and yes, she still collects money for Candy Days.

Training others

Barbara Schwarting, 76, of The Moorings of Arlington Heights, was there when the popular home goods consignment shop Village Treasure House started in 1997 in a small rented bungalow.

"We started out on a wing and a prayer," Schwarting says. "We had house walks to raise money for our business plan."

Today, Village Treasure House has a large professionally staged showroom in Northbrook and has given $1.5 million to charities benefiting women and children in crisis.

"Our shop has become a must-see destination for a lot of people, with more than 100 volunteers," Schwarting says.

Trained as a teacher, she had no experience in retail. But she ended up teaching anyway. Schwarting now uses her experience to train new volunteers to work on the sales floor.

The senior dog

Laddie, a 9-year-old Shetland Sheepdog (whose age makes him a senior) loves to volunteer at Smith Crossing in Orland Park, with his human, resident Mary McCauley, 73. He visits all the areas of the community, including assisted living, memory care, continuing care and even physical therapy.

"We walk around and sit down and talk with the residents, and they pet him if they want," McCauley says. "He's a relaxing dog to be around."

McCauley says Laddie helped her make the transition to a new home. "People took an instant liking to him," she says. "I always joke with my daughter that I think Laddie is the reason I got in here."

Originally published in the Chicago Tribune Prime senior living section on September 5, 2014.

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