Ruthie Steele squeezed her eyes shut to conjure up just the right words.
"If I can do it," she finally insisted from her wheelchair, "anyone can do it."
The 92-year-old Dyer woman is a shadow of her younger self, but she still has a sunny disposition. The Calumet Township native now lives at the Dyer Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, where she continues one of her dearest passions.
Steele volunteers something that she now has too much of on her hands — her time.
She does so through the United Way of Porter County's Retired and Senior Volunteer Program, or RSVP. It offers seniors over 55 the opportunity to volunteer their skills, talents and energy to not-for-profit agencies across Northwest Indiana.
Steele is the oldest volunteer in the program, performing simple but needed tasks, whether it's stuffing envelopes or labeling brochures through a special arrangement with staff members. They bring her weekly tasks and before they know it, she's ready for the next workload.
"She can't get enough work," added Evelyn Harris, a resource development associate with Lake Area United Way.
"Ruthie is living proof that anyone can be a part of this program," said Michael Glorioso, RSVP director of Northwest Indiana.
"It keeps me young," Steele told me while organizing program brochures.
This spunky quip came from a woman who's 40 years older than me, who lived through several wars, the Great Depression and 15 U.S. presidents, among other milestones.
She's at a point in her life where doctor appointments can be the only circle on a calendar. Where the TV now watches her. Where the pace of life slows … to … a … crawl as a clock on the wall ticks away even slower.
So many other seniors and nursing home residents can relate to this situation and, according to United Way figures, 13 percent of this population of Northwest Indiana residents are looking for ways to give back, keep engaged and stay on the ball.
"They're from a generation of have-nots who still feel compelled to give back to society, at any age," Glorioso said during my visit to Steele's latest home.
Her nursing center seems like a fine facility, loaded with activities and happenings. But when I asked Steele what she enjoyed most there, she lifted up a box of RSVP brochures and smiled.
It's become her job. A purpose. Something to look forward to.
"I love it," Steele said after shutting her eyes to again find the right words.
Steele volunteered for many years at one of the RSVP work stations, back when the program was operated by Catholic Charities. She was heartbroken when she was moved into a senior facility and was no longer able to come to that station.
However, she still wanted to continue helping so Harris brings her different tasks each week. It's a special arrangement because Steele was grandfathered in to the program after United Way took it over.
"Miss Ruthie moves very fast," Harris said while watching Steele work.
"She loves what she does and is always so excited to see us come in with a new project for her," Glorioso added.
The RSVP program is a national endeavor, inviting seniors to share their career-related skills or personal interests with not-for-profit agencies in need, such as hospitals, food banks, civic centers, schools and day care centers. Some of the tasks include answering phones, creating spreadsheets, greeting guests, working with school kids, delivering meals and office administration.
The average age of volunteers is 70 and the program has recently expanded to serve Lake, Porter, LaPorte and Stark counties.
"We are now a truly regional program and are very excited to get to work," Glorioso said. "In our region, we are seeing a growth in our aging population. It's an untapped resource for the most part. The RSVP program can help with that and also provide some knowledge, benefits and fun along the way."
The program is free with flexible hours, training available, supplemental liability insurance, limited mileage reimbursement and an opportunity for every senior. Even Steele, who has limited mobility at her age, is helping to put together brochures and she'll be assisting with a campaign drive for military veterans in the fall.
"It keeps my mind sharp," Steele said through labored words. "Like therapy."
Steele's nurses noted that her overall health and well-being has improved since being in the program.
Steele mentioned that it's more worthwhile than, say, playing bingo, watching TV or doing nothing at all. I asked her why other nursing home residents aren't involved in such a program. She could only shrug.
Nationally, more than 300,000 senior volunteers are involved in the program, a part of Senior Corps through the Corporation for National and Community Service. The local program can accommodate 450 volunteers, and positions are still available.
"No one is turned away," Glorioso told me on my radio show. (You can listen to that interview here: http://lakeshorepublicmedia.org/casual-fridays-june-19th-2015/)
Each week, I hear from seniors who say they either miss their former career or struggle to find meaningful endeavors. I always tell them to check out the RSVP program to see if something fits for them. If it doesn't fit, there are no binding commitments or social obligations. Really, what do you have to lose besides a few minutes to explore your next chapter in life?
For more information, contact Glorioso at 219-464-3583 or email@example.com. Or visit www.NationalService.gov/SeniorCorps.
firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter @jdavich
(Originally Published in the Post Tribune)
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