Older volunteers leave big shoes to fill
It was a shack.
A tumble-down shack just barely spared by the wind, rain and mud that consumed the Mississippi Gulf Coast in the fall of 2005.
But in that tiny shack, Anna Jean Carnahan, 81, of New Alexandria saw hope that with a little hard work and a steady hand, she could make a difference, transforming that rough-hewn sliver of a building into a home for an elderly woman whose house was inundated by Hurricane Katrina.
The retired oncology nurse is emblematic of the “Do the Right Thing” generation — born in the 1930s and early 1940s — known for its seemingly undying devotion to give back through volunteering.
Some fear that when members of Carnahan's generation go, it could be some time before others step up in such impressive numbers to take their places.
A recent study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows the number of volunteers 65 and older increased by more than 1.5 million during 2012, while volunteerism among the next two age groups — those 35 to 44 and 45 to 64 — dropped by nearly a million.
In part, experts attribute the decrease to a fragile economy that forced people to focus more on work than outside activities.
Regardless of the reason, it's a trend that worries social service officials who wonder what they'll do when the older generation no longer is able to help.
“We may never find that type of volunteer again,” said Donna Pacella, executive director of the American Red Cross in Westmoreland, Armstrong and Indiana counties.
“My people are 80 years old,” said Loretta Scalzitti of the Jeannette chapter of Tri-City Meals on Wheels. “We are getting younger people, but I need more.”
One volunteer, World War II veteran Frank Scurci, 91, has delivered meals since retiring in 1984 from General Tire Co.
“The old volunteers are delivering to old people,” Scalzitti said.
What drives them?
Researchers say the older generation is driven by the defining events of their lives — the Great Depression and World War II — that unified the nation and fostered a sense that citizens working together could weather the toughest times.
“It's how you're brought up,” said Marjorie Montanari, 84, of Lower Burrell, who has volunteered at more than 40 disasters from Florida to California during six decades with the Red Cross.
That upbringing fueled her to volunteer to escort grief-stricken families to the site where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed in Somerset County on Sept. 11, 2001.
That same sense of duty led Carnahan to Esctawpa, Miss., where she spent her nights sleeping on a cot and her days hanging drywall to build a home for a woman she had never met.
Even today, as she watches tragedies unfolding around the world, Carnahan feels a tug.
“You just feel that you want to do something for these people. I'd go to the Philippines (to do typhoon relief work) if I were younger,” said Carnahan, who humbly talks about working with her church, collecting shoes for the needy and crafting quilts for nursing home patients and families who lost their homes in fires.
Who will carry on?
Federal statistics show the best shot at carrying on the volunteer tradition might rest with two generations that are years apart.
Those between 34 and 44 show the highest volunteer rate — 31.6 percent — among the 64.5 million Americans who said they volunteered in the past year, federal numbers indicate.
A study by Pew Internet & American Life Project found that members of that age group listed helping others as their third-highest priority, behind being a good parent and having a successful marriage.
The next greatest hope appears to be with some of the youngest Americans, according to federal statistics showing that 27.4 percent of those ages 16 to 19 volunteer.
Their focus is different, one expert said.
Susan Ellis of Energize Inc., a Philadelphia training, consulting and publishing firm specializing in volunteering, said older volunteers seek less-defined tasks, doing whatever needs to be done with groups such as the Red Cross. Young volunteers, on the other hand, want specifically defined service projects with preset goals.
Mt. Pleasant High School sophomore Sarah Zelmore is part of that next wave of volunteers.
She works at a monthly dinner feeding 175 people, in addition to “constant studying” and other extracurricular activities.
“I love to have a full plate,” said Zelmore, 16, of Acme. “There's always room in my schedule for making a difference.”
And if Bryan Musser, 20, of Crafton, ever met Carnahan, Montanari or Scurci, there's little doubt they would approve.
Musser has worked two jobs while attending Pittsburgh Technical Institute and volunteering with The Salvation Army, giving up holidays to be on call.
He even helped with Superstorm Sandy cleanup efforts in New Jersey.
“It was difficult, but where there's a will, there's a way,” Musser said.
Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.