05/11/2012 05:06 pm ET Updated Jul 11, 2012

Older Volunteers: Making a Difference for Generations

After Air Force serviceman Al Collins of Harrison County, Mississippi, retired, he enjoyed spending time with family and friends, and checking off household projects on his ever-growing list. "After fixing everything I could think of in my own house, I realized so many neighbors my age and older can't undertake the same projects on their own," he said. Al joined the Handyman Brigade, a program of the Harrison County RSVP, and today volunteers with 21 retired plumbers, electricians and handymen, helping aging and disabled residents make home repairs that would otherwise go un-done.

Karlen Eaton of Chattanooga, Tennessee, worked as a public school teacher for 25 years before retiring. As a former educator, Karlen knew that too many children are at a disadvantage even before they start kindergarten, making it a challenge for them to catch up without extra support. With a desire to use her skills and stay active, Karlen joined the local Foster Grandparent program where she spends 20 hours per week helping two- and three-year-olds master social and emotional skills, and develop a love of learning.

Al and Karlen's stories are just two examples of older Americans who are making an impact and who exemplify the "big boom" of civic and social capital about to flood our communities. Last year, the leading edge of the Baby Boom generation reached the traditional retirement age of 65. By 2030, one in five Americans will be age 65. While some talk about the aging of the American population as a problem or burden, we see a tremendous opportunity to engage more people like Al and Karlen in using their professional skills, time and ingenuity to help meet communities' growing needs.

Across the country, individuals 55 and older are already having a powerful impact through volunteering. According to data from the Corporation for National and Community Service, one in four Americans age 55 and older volunteers. These individuals contributed, on average, more than 3 billion hours of service in their communities per year between 2008 and 2010 with a yearly economic benefit to the nation of more than $64 billion.

Whether they serve every day or a few times a year, these volunteers are making an impact on issues they care about -- helping seniors live independently in their homes, tutoring and mentoring at-risk youth, providing financial education and job training to veterans and their families, and helping communities recover from disasters. At a time of growing social need, their service is vital now more than ever as nonprofits increasingly rely on volunteers to fill the gaps.

What's more, while communities benefit from volunteers skills and experience, older volunteers gain something important as well -- improved health. More than two decades of health research points to significant mental and health benefits including lower mortality rates, increased strength and energy, lower rates of depression and greater functional ability.

For Al Collins, the personal rewards are great. "For me, the most rewarding part of the volunteer work is sitting down and visiting with the people we help. Everyone has a story to tell. I leave each home feeling like I have a new friend."

For Karlen Eaton, or "Granny K" as her students call her, being a foster grandparent means staying active and making an impact. "I love the children's smiles and hugs and helping them to reach their potential. I also love that it keeps me busy. I enjoy going to work every day."

Each year, the Corporation for National and Community Service's Senior Corps programs engages more than 330,000 Americans ages 55 and older through RSVP, the Foster Grandparent Program and the Senior Companion Program. Last year, Senior Corps volunteers served 96.2 million hours, making a difference in the lives of more than 700,000 elderly people who received assistance to remain independent in their homes; and more than 300,000 young people who received one-on-one tutoring and mentoring that improved their academic performance, self-esteem and overall social behavior.

This May, the nation celebrates Older Americans Month and Senior Corps Week. As we recognize the contributions and achievements that older Americans have made, let's also look to the great needs and possibilities ahead and make sure that the new "Big Boom" of volunteering is heard and felt across the nation. Visit to find out how you can be part of the solution to the challenges in your community.