There will be no parades down Main Street, church bells ringing, train whistles blowing, or fire truck sirens blaring to celebrate this month when the AmeriCorps Seniors Retired and Senior Volunteer Program of Allamakee, Howard and Winneshiek counties observes its 20th anniversary year, but there will be dozens of community organizations that quietly express thanks that the local RSVP has been there for two decades to provide volunteers that make it possible for them to succeed in their work for their communities.
As Northeast Iowa RSVP program commemorates 20 years of service to the three-county area, Deana Hageman, who has served a RSVP director since April 2018, reflects on some of the notable accomplishments of the AmeriCorps Seniors program and looks forward to continuing and expanding its role.
In more than 70 locations – which RSVP calls “stations” – volunteers recruited and assigned by RSVP contribute their time and talents to agencies and organizations that include veterans’ services, care centers, food pantries, meal deliveries, schools, day care providers, youth services, health care providers, historical and cultural associations, recreation programs, blood drives, tax preparation, and dozens of other community assistance groups. Without the volunteers that RSVP provides, these organizations could not provide the services and benefits they offer to the three-county area.
In the first years the local RSVP was established, there were nine stations that sought the agencies assistance in providing volunteers. Currently, there are 72 stations, and that number is likely to increase.
“There are many non-profit organizations in our group that tell us they literally could not function without the help of volunteers,” said Deana Hageman, RSVP Director, “and there is an increasing need for volunteers. We welcome people age 55 and older to contact RSVP and find the best fit for their talents.”
“We are fortunate to live in a part of the state where people are generous with their volunteer time and talent,” Hageman said. She said RSVP volunteers enjoy using the skills they have acquired during their careers to help the area’s non-profit organizations operate more effectively and efficiently.
She added that those who volunteer not only help their community, they also gain a rewarding experience. “We have volunteers that tell us this work is one of the most worthwhile and
gratifying parts of their lives,” said Deana.
20 years of service to RSVP
Georgie Klevar of Decorah was one of the first volunteers and has worked with RSVP since its founding. She has served with at least 20 stations within the RSVP organization, including three years on the advisory board.
Currently she volunteers on the Food Pantry board of directors as president and as a pantry escort. Her previous volunteer work includes the ISU Extension Service Food and Fitness Initiative planning committee, English literacy tutor, Northeast Iowa Community College ESL (English as a Second Language) tutor, Library ESL tutor, Equal Opportunity fundraiser, Habitat for Humanity board, the Luther College Cafeteria to Community Food Program, First Lutheran Church Food Pantry, MLK Day Food Drive, Northeast Iowa Peace and Justice Center, Decorah Library Reads!, and several other stations.
Formerly a high school social studies teacher, she taught at North Winneshiek School when she moved to Decorah in 1970 and then began her career in adult education at NICC, eventually becoming the community college’s Director of Continuing Education. She retired from NICC in 2000.
“When I was invited to serve on the RSVP board, I was pleased to do so because I knew it was a program that would be of great benefit to our community,” said Georgie. “Senior citizens often have time, energy, experience and a desire to help others, and those volunteers make a difference to many organizations.” She added that important community programs such as Habitat for Humanity and the Food Pantry, programs that address fundamental needs of families, could not function without large numbers of volunteers.
“In all my volunteer activities I’ve met new and interesting people and I have a good time while volunteering,” she said. “Personally, I was most impacted by the time I spent tutoring people from other countries, helping them learn enough English to get along in the United States.”
She said that she was inspired and humbled by the courage of immigrants who left their countries to seek a better life for their families. “I learned as much from them as they did from me as they shared their stories and information about their cultures.”
Her experiences working as a volunteer range from uplifting to gratifying to humorous. “It’s heartwarming when a single mother with four children comes into the Food Pantry to get much needed food,” she said. “And it’s uplifting when you are thanked by an ESL student who appreciates the help you have offered.”
Georgie said she remembers a humorous incident related to s to her ESL tutoring with a Spanish-speaking client.
“I was helping a Mexican woman with her English and asked her to point out and name several items in her kitchen, including soap. She was totally confused, and I was confused because she was usually a very fast learner.” Said Georgie. “Finally, we figured out that she heard me say ‘sopa,’ which is soup in Spanish, and we had a good laugh.”
The rewards of her volunteer work have been many, she said, but foremost is the appreciation she has received from clients. “It’s very gratifying when people offer a sincere thank you for the help given to them.”
Volunteers are always needed and appreciated
“So many of our RSVP members are like Georgie,” said Hageman. “During her 20 years of volunteer work she has literally contributed thousands of hours of service with no need or desire for recognition. As we observe our 20th year, the community should know how much volunteers, especially RSVP volunteers, have given”.
She said the RSVP volunteers database goes back to 2003, and it lists 991 total volunteers over the years with 493 current volunteers. In its initial year, RSVP provided volunteers for nine stations; now there are 72. In the course of its 20 years, there have been 116 stations.
The first RSVP Advisory Council/Board was comprised of Georgie Klevar, Mark Wilharm, Mary Lou Rauk, Mary Ann Humpal, and Wendy Mihm Herold. Currently nine members, three members from each county, meet quarterly to advise, assess community need, and assist in activities.
The biggest challenge facing RSVP today, Deana said, is awareness of the organization’s work. “We have volunteers tell us all the time they didn’t know the RSVP program existed,” she said. “We need to get the word out and recruit more people.”
The greatest success in her years as director has been the “partnership formed with those volunteers who help the RSVP staff with tasks that allow us to focus on community needs.
Having only a full-time Director and a part time Volunteer Coordinator, we couldn’t support the number of stations and volunteers without that partnership with our internal volunteers.”
People age 55 or older who are looking for opportunities to serve their community are encouraged to volunteer through RSVP. You do not need to be retired.
“Your volunteer assistance can aid hundreds of people in Allamakee, Howard, and Winneshiek counties, and contributing your talent and time will be one of the most valuable and rewarding parts of your senior years,” Deana promises. “There is always need for more assistance, and we enjoy matching up the right volunteers with the right organizations and services.”
Established nationally in 1993 as the Retired Senior Volunteer Program, RSVP has been operating locally at the Decorah Public Library since 2001. Service opportunities and hours are flexible, volunteers can choose from a wide range of stations, and the time they dedicate to their volunteer work can be as little or as much as they wish.
To find out about volunteer service opportunities and needs, call RSVP at 563-277-5181; send an email message to firstname.lastname@example.org; or visit the RSVP offices Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Decorah Public Library, 202 Winnebago St., Decorah, Iowa.