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Actively aging: Local seniors keep their minds keen through volunteer work

Marion Jacobson leans against a brick wall. Jacobson was named one of Becker County's Outstanding Seniors in 2004 and went on to win the state title. (Meagan Pittelko/Tribune)1 / 5
Marion Jacobson leans against a brick wall. Jacobson was named one of Becker County's Outstanding Seniors in 2004 and went on to win the state title. (Meagan Pittelko/Tribune)2 / 5
Kris Tovson stocks the shelves of the food pantry. (Meagan Pittelko/Tribune)3 / 5
Betty Wolff smiles as she packs boxes at the food pantry. (Meagan Pittelko/Tribune)4 / 5
Betty Wolff (left) and Don Sayer (right) put food in boxes at the food pantry. (Meagan Pittelko/Tribune)5 / 5

For some senior citizens, volunteering is a simple pastime used to fill space in lieu of a nine-to-five job. For others, though, it's practically a second career.

Marion Jacobson, who turns 90 years old this November, laughs heartily--and often--speaks openly and could fill an entire resume with the volunteer work she's done.

She's been volunteering for over three decades, after all.

"My husband and I started getting involved back in 1984," she said. "I'll do it for as long as I can. I just love it."

Jacobson has volunteered in nearly any context imaginable, from working the AARP booth at the local county fair to planning the first ever Pumpkin Fest with the Lake Park Garden Club. She even leads an exercise class for seniors at the Lake Park City Center.

"We work out--we warm up and cool down--but, oh, we giggle," she said. "It's my giggle group."

In 2004, she was recognized as one of Becker County's Outstanding Seniors--and she went on to win the Outstanding Senior Citizens Award at the Minnesota State Fair.

"I just thought I should go to the fair, but I didn't know about the award--the others didn't tell me--and it was 90 degrees and the bus was late, so I came in and my sweat was rolling off my face," she said. "But, if you ever get down to the senior citizen building at the state fair, my face is on the wall there."

Jacobson also began volunteering with the Mahube-Otwa Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) in 1997, according to RSVP records. The program, which spans across eight Minnesota counties, has almost 400 volunteers recording hours in an average month, according to Becker County Senior Coordinator Karen Lenius.

"Volunteers can do tax preparation, work at food shelves, museums and libraries, or lead exercise groups," she said. "Sometimes, they teach programs at Tamarac Wildlife or read to kids in the schools. They can do lots of different things."

Cynthia McDonough, RSVP/Senior Coordinator, added that volunteers log an average of over 80,000 hours each year through the program.

"The volunteers just give of their time," she said, "and they give a lot of it."

Lenius said that many volunteers credit the work they do for keeping their minds keen.

"We had a previous tax volunteer who said to me, 'I think my brain would be mush by now if I didn't have this program,'" she said. "He was in his 80s, and he was still volunteering at that time."

Dave Birchem, a tax volunteer of about 20 years--and past Becker County Outstanding Senior--agreed.

"I've been doing it for quite a few years," he said, "and I've started looking forward to it. You meet some real great people in all kinds of different situations and, once you volunteer, it's hard not to do it anymore.."

Although Birchem worked in tax preparation for many years, Lenius was quick to mention that volunteers aren't required to have any special skills for most opportunities.

"There are so many places that need people to step up and contribute," she said. "It just benefits the community, and we're always looking for more volunteers. Some volunteer jobs--like the tax program--do require specific training, but there are also some that take no experience besides the heart for service."

Current volunteer opportunities include driving for Becker County Transit, cooking for Meals on Wheels, reading to children at the Boys and Girls Club or in the elementary schools and acting as a companion for Hospice of the Red River Valley--in addition to many more.

"You have to find something you're interested in and find something that's needed," Jacobson said. "There are so many places where life could be better for the elderly and others and, even if you could only do something a couple hours a week, that's okay."

According to RSVP records, some volunteers have logged a couple hundred hours in their time in the program, while others have logged almost 20,000 hours. The choice to volunteer more or less, Lenius explained, is up to the individual and there are no set requirements.

"People volunteer as long as they can and they know when they're not able to anymore," she said. "But they're part of a community solution, and they're such an important part of that solution."

With so much flexibility and such a diverse pool of opportunities to choose from, potential volunteers can almost certainly find the right fit for their interests and schedule--and a lot of volunteers are still needed.

"I would really like more people to get involved," Jacobson said. "Even if you just go to nursing homes or assisted living to visit, find something. There are so many places that need helping hands."

The key, she added, is to get the new retirees involved--and Lenius and McDonough agreed.

"We need the next generation," Lenius said. "We need those newly retired 60 year olds."

Volunteers through the RSVP program must be 55 years old, but there is no maximum age limit or a limit on how many years an individual can volunteer. The oldest volunteer in the program logging hours right now, according to RSVP records, is 104 years old.

"He was born in 1913--think of everything he has seen. It's incredible," McDonough said. "Coming to work today, I realized that there seem to be so many bad things going on in today's world but, when I go to work, I get to see all of the good things that our volunteers are doing in our community and surrounding communities. These volunteers are so wonderful to work with and they're just a good bunch of people."

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