‘The great secret about service’: Volunteering helps more than the recipients

RSVP of Dane County programs such as ‘Foster Grandparent’ and ‘Computer Buddy' kept vulnerable populations engaged during the pandemic.
Larry Orr holds up a peace sign and smiles in his Hawthorne t-shirt.
Photo courtesy of Larry Orr.
Larry Orr, wearing a t-shirt representing the school he serves, is proud to volunteer with RSVP of Dane County.

Before the pandemic, Larry Orr held an important reputation as that “happy grandpa” welcoming local elementary school children and teachers each day. Serving in the Foster Grandparent Program with the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program of Dane County, or RSVP, Orr would go out of his way to greet the kids and lend a helping hand. 

“Seeing them as real people, treating them like real people, giving them respect and kind of self-confidence,” Orr says. “I think it gives them a happier attitude towards the day.”

It made Orr happy, too. But the nearly 20 hours a week he spent in classrooms came to a grinding halt when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Luckily, RSVP adapted and connected Orr to other opportunities. He began reading children’s books aloud through the video-calling app Caribu, which were then posted to YouTube. 

“It was not quite like being back doing straight hours in the library in the good old days, but still it gave me a chance to put some expression into it and hope that the kids would pick up on that to enjoy the reading,” Orr says. 

For more than 50 years, RSVP has been connecting volunteers ages 55 and up with various opportunities at local organizations. When the pandemic began, RSVP grappled with how best to continue its mission while also ensuring the safety of its volunteers — one of the most at-risk populations for the coronavirus. While the organization’s driver services program ramped up, delivering meals, groceries and other items to people that were homebound during the pandemic, leadership continued to strategize creative ways to keep volunteers safe but active. Because for many, it felt like there was no better time to make a difference — and find comfort — through volunteering.

“We always pride ourselves in saying that we place our volunteers where they love to volunteer, where they want to volunteer, and will thrive as being volunteers. And during this time, that really showed,” says RSVP assistant director Diana Jost. “We were able to [engage] volunteers who may otherwise not be able to [do] some of their volunteer opportunities. They couldn’t go into the schools but this gave them some way to connect with students.”

RSVP had been placing 230 tutors in 60 schools throughout Dane County each year. During the pandemic, RSVP’s “computer buddy” program, which allows volunteers to virtually correspond with students, skyrocketed in popularity. Orr signed on, forging a connection with a young boy named Noah in DeForest, discussing guinea pigs, science projects and fun trips.

“I think both in being a foster grandparent, and in the more limited sense of being a computer buddy, we’re helping to make the world a happier place for kids,” Orr says. 

A volunteer with the RSVP Computer Buddy program, Kate McGinnity smiles in front of her camera.

Volunteer Kate McGinnity enjoys connecting with kids through RSVP’s computer buddy program. Photo provided.

A volunteer with the RSVP Computer Buddy program, Kate McGinnity smiles in front of her camera.

Volunteer Kate McGinnity is confident the computer buddy program helps older adults and kids alike.

“It was the highlight of my week when I got that message that there was a blog waiting for me from my little buddy,” McGinnity says. “Nobody had asked me in a really long time what my favorite candy was when I was a kid.”

McGinnity, who is the Dane County supervisor for District 37, was previously involved in a local organization based in her hometown of Cambridge that looks at issues related to older adults. For her, it just made sense to join RSVP.

“We kept hearing people were already lonely, and then the pandemic hit,” she says. “It’s our biggest issue with older adults. Some people develop or have worsening mobility issues so you couple those two things, and the computer buddies program is just part of the solution.”

Former RSVP coordinator Mary Dwyer echoes McGinnity’s sentiment, adding that older adults tend to struggle finding opportunities to feel fulfilled after retiring. She now serves as a literacy tutor helping students prepare for the U.S. Citizenship exam. 

“It’s really quite something to see people who are using English as a second language work so hard to achieve the American dream of citizenship, something which us U.S. born folks, I think, take for granted far too much,” Dwyer says. “It’s a satisfaction for me when I tutor a student, they take the citizenship test, and then they pass it. That’s a great feeling.”

It’s that sense of accomplishment, belonging and purpose that keep the volunteers coming back. Another RSVP program, “Group Project and Homeworkers,” attracted 200-250 volunteers for sewing, knitting or crocheting items to donate. Many people sifted through their old craft rooms or basements to find fabrics and other materials they could send to crafters within the program. While most met over Zoom, they still managed to make more than 6,000 face masks — all of which were sent to hospitals and homeless shelters.

“It’s one of those full-circle effect programs where it’s not only benefitting the volunteers who are creating because they get to do what they love, they get to create items, use their talents and skills, and then they get to actually give it to people who really need it,” says program coordinator Kate Seal. 

Kate Seal (left) and Yusef Wafford (right) wear their volunteer-crafted masks.

RSVP program coordinator Kate Seal and volunteer Yusef Wafford wear masks they crafted and donated during the pandemic.

McGinnity, who is currently helping recruit more people to join the computer buddy program, also believes that RSVP benefits recipients and volunteers alike. 

“It’s an important program,” McGinnity says — and not just because of the camaraderie. “It allows people to be of service to each other, which is an important part of humanity, and it’s a great antidote to loneliness. That’s the great secret about service.”

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