Tikkun Olam: Retired, but not from good deeds

Retirement hasn’t stopped Sharon Mayer from working, and she’s not alone. The Sherman Oaks resident is part of a growing number of seniors out in force to volunteer with the regularity of a job. 

Nationally, the numbers are significant: The Corporation for National and Community Service in Washington, D.C., predicted in a 2007 report that the number of volunteers 65 and older would jump from almost 9 million at the time to more than 13 million in 2020, according to United States Census data.

In the case of Mayer, she has volunteered every Tuesday for the past six years at Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles’ (JFS) SOVA Community Food Resource Program in Van Nuys, applying her skills as a former social worker to help serve her community. 

SOVA provides free groceries and support services to more than 12,000 people each month. Mayer got involved after a career that involved working in Child Protective Services, health care policy, and as chief field deputy to Mike Feuer, L.A.’s current city attorney, who was a councilman at the time.

“I was looking for something that could use some of my own skills and that was really giving directly to people in need,” she said during a recent interview in SOVA’s Valley food pantry in Van Nuys. 

After retiring, she sat in on a meeting with JFS and Feuer, at that time a member of the state Assembly. 

“I was just kind of sitting there and I went, ‘Oh, wait a minute. I can do that.’ It just seemed to call my name,” she said.

JFS has 800 volunteers overall, 60 percent of whom are baby boomers, and that number has been on the rise, according to Sherri Kadovitz, community outreach/volunteer coordinator. 

Other local organizations have seen a large baby boomer turnout as well. The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles found that 75 percent of volunteers responding to a 2012-2013 survey for its children’s literacy program, KOREH L.A., were over 50, according to Barri Worth Girvan, director of community engagement programs and government affairs for Federation.

David Levinson, founder and executive director of Big Sunday, said many boomers started volunteering with their kids years ago and now are continuing on their own.

“We’ve always had a lot of baby boomer volunteers,” he said. “Now, with [their kids] growing up, many of the baby boomers have a bit more time on their hands to volunteer and help. It’s a nice time and age to give back.”

The Corporation for National and Community Service’s study explained things another way. It found that the propensity to volunteer rises with increases in education, and that the baby boomer generation is more highly educated and has had more opportunities than previous generations.

Margaret L. Avineri, JFS director of integrated clinical and community services, said the boomer generation is particularly drawn to volunteering because “they are at an age where they have a lot to give and they still have a lot of energy, and are looking for a way to connect with the community.”

And JFS is trying to strengthen that bond. Two years ago, it received a three-year grant from the California Community Foundation related to Farsi-speaking immigrants in the baby boomer generation.

“We’ve worked to involve them in the nonprofit world and trained a large number of them,” Avineri said. “Now they can go out and communicate with other Farsi speakers and help them.” 

Mayer, a grandmother of six who also volunteers twice a month at the downtown Central Library leading art and architecture tours, has found that most of her fellow volunteers at the SOVA pantry in Van Nuys are of her generation: “It’s the same crew. It’s really nice because you come in and you see the same people and we share, what’re your kids doing, that kind of stuff.” 

They’re drawn by the difference they can make in the lives of hungry people.

“I think what’s really special about SOVA is that we’re not just a food bank. We have other agencies that come in here and see our clients,” Mayer said after meeting with a first-time client. “For example, the gentleman I just spoke with looks like he will be eligible for Medi-Cal and food stamps. So I can take him over, he signs up and he’ll see somebody today who can actually take that application without him going to the welfare department.”

Mayer uses her past as a social worker to help her with her current position at SOVA at the resource center. 

“We basically are kind of the first person that somebody will see when they come to SOVA for the first time. So we’ll take down their information and we basically explain to them how SOVA works — how many times they can come a month, the different resources that we have as an agency.”

Retirees such as Mayer take the work they do for JFS seriously, Avineri said.

“People treat it like a job, an obligation. We know we can count on them,” she said. “What’s most remarkable is the level of commitment. Once you’ve been exposed to the work, you can’t just do it one time. Sharon is extremely giving and lovely in every way, and certainly committed. Our programs would not survive without volunteers like her.” 

She added: “People cannot say enough how much this work adds to their quality of life. The idea of tikkun olam is real for our volunteers.” 

Mayer said her work at SOVA has had its ups and downs, but has always been worth it.

“The rewarding part of the work is to actually see the relief on people’s faces when I tell them, ‘I’m getting some information from you and then you’re going to get food. This is it.’ 

“One of the most difficult things is to see people who are really embarrassed by coming in and how difficult it is for them,” Mayer continued. “I think it’s our role to alleviate that and to let them know that there but for the grace of God go any of us, and that this is a place that will help.”