Most people would say I’ve had an eventful life since I retired from my columnist job at The Sacramento Bee nearly two years ago.
I’ve continued to write here and there for newspapers and magazines while trying my hand at fiction. (Some detractors have suggested unkindly that I sometimes did the latter at The Bee. Not nice.)
I’ve tried new recreational activities, including joining a rowing team in West Sacramento and taken up rock climbing while continuing to play basketball and racquetball.
I’ve traveled, done some home remodeling, acquired pets and I’ve stayed active socially, dating a bit and meeting friends regularly. As a lot of retirees like to say, I’m busier now than I ever was working full time. At least it feels that way.
But recently I realized something was missing. I needed more meaning in my life. I wanted to be doing something community-oriented. To employ an over-used phrase, I wanted to give back.
But what exactly? Coach sports? Do publicity for non-profits? Join a board? Help kids learn to read?
Those ideas all had appeal. But none felt quite right. So I took the advice of some of the people I’ve met doing stories for this special section of The Bee and approached the task methodically, as if I were looking to start a new career.
I took a survey at lifereimagined.aarp.org. It’s designed to help people discover their passions and values. I learned a lot. Then I interviewed friends and retirement experts, asking what sorts of volunteer work people are doing in this area, and what they thought might be a good fit for me.
What I found is there are options everywhere. And that a lot of people share the same sense of angst I’ve been feeling.
Indeed, it seems most people want to be more engaged in their communities, even after long, fulfilling careers. As Steven Gray, a professor at California State University, Sacramento, told me, humans seem “genetically programmed to help others.”
We are at our best – and most fulfilled – when we bring joy to others.
I got the same message from Barbara O’Connor, the retired communications professor, public TV station founder and all-around powerhouse, who reported happily on what she called a “major shift in our culture.” Retirees, long discounted, are now being valued as key contributors in numerous fields.
It was while talking with O’Connor that I got my inspiration.
She was mentioning various friends who have found fulfilling volunteer jobs. An executive who discovered his greatest joy teaching adults how to read. An entrepreneur who is using school cafeterias as a site to make healthy meals for the poor. She mentioned her own satisfaction in joining the board of AARP.
In most cases, these people were bringing great skills and experience to their new tasks but were taking on assignments well outside their comfort zones; they were learning and growing even as they gave back.
Then, almost in passing, O’Connor noted how cool it must be for Habitat for Humanity volunteers to “work with 20 people and (rebuild) a house from the studs and get it done in 14 hours.”
“That,” she said, “has to be a real upper.”
Indeed it must.
I’ve long admired Habitat, the international group that includes former President Jimmy Carter as one of its high-profile volunteers. I’ve always been interested in construction and home remodeling, while having little more skill than being able to drive a nail fairly straight some of the time.
But lack of skills is no problem, Habitat volunteer coordinator Laine Himmelmann told me when I called for information. The group trains its volunteers, even offering a six-week course for those wanting to learn electrical skills.
The group currently has three projects under way in the area – two in Del Paso Heights and a 14-unit housing complex near Luther Burbank High School in south Sacramento. Over the past year, about 2,000 people have participated in the group’s local projects.
Some just show up for a day or two. Others, like retired Kennedy High School English teacher Richard Johnson, volunteer almost full time.
For Johnson, it provides fun, camaraderie and the pleasure of working side by side with the people who ultimately will buy the home they’re helping to build.
“That’s the American dream, for low-income families to own their own homes,” Johnson told me as he took a break from framing walls for the south Sacramento project.
I have no plans to work four days a week. Maybe four days a month.
But I’ve taken the Habitat orientation class and by the time you read this I should have at least one volunteer shift under my (tool) belt.
I hope it brings me as much joy as it does Johnson.
But if it doesn’t, no biggie. There are so many other things to try.
“That’s the beauty of it,” O’Connor said of volunteering. It’s not like work at all, where people too often feel stressed and undervalued, even in the best of jobs.
When volunteering, “if you don’t like what you’re doing, you can do something else,” she said. “I think that’s very freeing.”