For all they do

Celebrating Older American Month by looking at contributions made by volunteers.

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May is Older Americans Month, and the perfect time to celebrate the boundless contributions older adults make in the community. Older Americans Month was established in 1963, and every president since John F. Kennedy has issued a formal proclamation asking that the entire nation pay tribute in some way. 

On the Vineyard, there is a thriving older adult population. According to the Healthy Aging Martha’s Vineyard’s 2020 survey of almost 2,500 participants, one in three full-time residents here are 65 years or older. While countless individuals of all ages contribute to the care of others on the Island, the survey revealed that older adults volunteer the work equivalent to 500-plus full-time employees, with an economic value of $28 million annually when calculated at $27.20 per hour.

Among the volunteers is Joyce Cornwell, who spends time at the Martha’s Vineyard Center for Living, which provides a variety of services, programs, and activities for Islanders 55 and over through partnerships with the town Councils on Aging and other related organizations. Cornwell has a long history of volunteerism, even in her working days. “I was involved in interfaith housing, the church fair, the literacy program, teacher’s help, rescue squad, surplus food distribution, driver for special needs, community action committee, and a mental health advocate,” Cornwell says. “I’ve always been involved to some degree with people, having my finger in something here.”

Cornwell started with the Center for Living about four years ago. She has her hand in all sorts of things, modestly saying, “I do whatever I see needs to be done. I tell jokes, get them involved in conversation to get them thinking.” Ever on the go, she is involved with assisting with each hour’s activity, which range from coffee time and conversation to discussions about “this day in history,” a game or craft, as well as an exercise class. But most of all she says, “I enjoy getting people to talk and share where they are. Especially older people, they don’t talk about their heart, about themselves, and people get isolated due to age.”

Cynthia Schilling has been a loyal volunteer at the Vineyard Haven library, doing a lot, including filing and organizing the constant flow of books. Her roots there go back to childhood. She recalls, “I grew up a couple of blocks from the library, and I used to go over by myself as a little kid. I wasn’t too old when I ended up helping the librarian. I loved hanging out there and doing whatever she wanted me to do. She gave me old library cards, ink pads, and stamps so I could play librarian at home.” In college, Schilling ended up studying library science, and when she returned home, filled in for the children’s librarian for a couple of years. 

Schilling ended up back at the library when her volunteer work at the hospital ended. The pull to the library came again. She expresses, “I just love being able to do something, and I found lots of good books to read, which is a real benefit.”

Rufus Peebles has been doing fabulous work with students at the high school, helping them in the college application process since the 1990s. “I do it because it’s fun for me,” he insists. He started by interviewing those who were applying to Harvard, his alma mater, but it morphed into speaking with students who might do well applying to other competitive colleges as well. In coordination with the counseling office, Peebles started to talk to groups of juniors about how to navigate the college admissions process. He finds it helpful for him as an outsider to say, “‘Raise your sights. Apply to some ‘stretch schools,’ and if there’s any way I can be helpful, I’d be delighted to.’ I think to hear this from somebody on-Island helps people find the courage to apply to places that even 20 years ago were hard to get into, and these days, horribly difficult.” Peebles finds that he fields questions such as what to wear to an interview, how to address the admissions officer, or what to write about for a college essay, among others. 

The volunteering clearly feeds Peebles as much as it does the others. He says, “There are no preset rules about what we should be doing after age 65. We have to each find what works for ourselves. So, I’m still working full-time as a psychologist, but volunteering gives me a chance to have different kinds of relationships with people who are the next generation or so down. I think all of us benefit from multigenerational contacts.”

This large pool of dedicated volunteers is helping to keep the Island alive and thriving, which we can be grateful for not just this month but every month.