10/19/2012 09:25 am ET Updated Dec 19, 2012

Got Time? Got Love? Get With The Program

Sometimes on Fridays, 6-year-old Laura Miller stares out her living room window, waiting eagerly for BB to arrive. On other Fridays BB is already at the house when Laura steps off the school bus. The little girl's face lights up when she sees BB's car in the driveway. Laura's mother, Maria, knows her daughter will soon wave her away because Laura likes to keep BB all to herself.

BB is Barbara Rabberman, a retired special-education teacher with no family ties to Laura, who is intellectually disabled and developmentally delayed. Barbara visits Laura once a week. When she visits she leaves her teacher hat at home. In Laura's life BB acts more like a grandmother, a caring adult who loves unconditionally, and who comes over once a week to play, not to administer therapy. For Laura, her playtime with BB is a welcome respite from days filled with therapeutic intervention of all kinds.

Sadie Burleigh will drop whatever she's doing when her mother, Willa, says it's time to visit Ursula. Sadie has autism, and like many other children on the autism spectrum she resists switching from one task to another. Not so when it comes to visiting Ursula, a woman in her 70s who lives in a retirement village and volunteers to be a playmate for Sadie.

Ursula and Sadie have been known to hug each other for 20 minutes at a time before settling into a mutually enjoyable activity.

A national organization called Family Friends, matched these seniors with their young special needs friends. Founded in 1986 by The National Council on Aging, and funded by The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the program has matched hundreds of seniors with time and love on their hands with children and families who are in need of time and love. Not surprisingly, the senior volunteers receive love in equal measure from the families they service. Maria Miller's voice quivers as she speaks passionately about the impact BB has had on her family in the two years she has been visiting Laura.

"People approach special needs kids in several ways," she explains. "In their effort to be compassionate some people come on too strong and overwhelm wary kids. Some people approach tentatively and just don't know how to be. And some look right through these children and pretend they're not there. Barbara (BB) was relaxed from the moment she and Laura met. They hit it off right away and we've seen a metamorphosis in our daughter. BB gently encourages her to move along so Laura doesn't even know she's learning. She shares in Laura's triumph when she says a new word or takes a new step. Sometimes friends and family just don't get it. BB gets it. She has been an immeasurable blessing to us."

Willa Conrad echoes those sentiments. "When we moved to Philadelphia, we left all our family and friends more than 100 miles away. We were able to procure excellent therapeutic services for Sadie, but we missed family. We needed a grandma, someone who would love our daughter without judgment. Some of these kids are scared of the world. They need lots of love and comfort. Ursula provides that. We've had teenagers and college students come to visit, but for the most part they didn't understand Sadie's needs. She is verbal, but she doesn't speak at a speed needed for effective communication. I could see the young people getting frustrated. Older people aren't in such a hurry. Ursula is good about letting Sadie sit in the silences."

"I don't have a degree in any kind of education," Ursula admits. "But I have very good natural instincts. Sadie and I just click. After two years of visits, in the past few weeks Sadie has told me she loves me. She doesn't go around saying that to everyone. You have no idea how good that feels to me because I love her too."

"Seniors have many gifts to share," says Meryl Lubchansky, former Family Friends assistant coordinator for Bucks County, PA. "Bringing their reservoir of experiences to these children and their families links generations in a wonderful way."

Barbara Rabberman can't agree more. "I retired," she said, "but I didn't stop wanting to be valuable and to give back."

Before meeting Laura, she was matched with a boy who has cerebral palsy. She visited him every week for 12 years until he didn't need her any more. He is a man now, but Barbara continues to visit him monthly and often takes along her 12 year-old grandson who likes to tell jokes.

Both BB and Ursula have become part of the families they visit. They share holidays and attend birthday parties. Barbara goes to school functions and occasionally has lunch with Maria.

"Last weekend we had what I called a BBpalooza," Maria said. "We saw BB three days in a row!"

Family Friends sponsors picnics and potlucks in environments where children with special needs can feel comfortable and volunteers can meet each other.

Government funding for Family Friends chapters has been eliminated. Most programs survive on private donations now.

The number of baby boomers facing retirement continues to grow. Staying active and involved in the world is as important to a healthy old age as eating well and exercising. So complain about money, complain about health, complain if your candidate loses the election, but don't complain about boredom. In these tough economic times, the list of programs and activities worthy of support seems endless. There are people from one end of this country to another who could use your support. If you have extra time and love to spare, get out there and make a difference. Family Friends might be a perfect place to begin.

Earlier on Huff/Post50:

7 Ways To Volunteer Over 50