Colleen Maynard squeezed juice from fresh oranges and lemons before gathering the remaining lemon peels for her dinner — Greek chicken she would make from items she got at a local food pantry. Maynard, of Leesburg, can’t work, so she visits Beyond the Walls food pantry in Fruitland Park every other week to help keep food on the table. The former chef and health inspector had to retire due to recent heart surgery and is taking in a quarter of her usual pay at 62 years of age. “I’m paying a co-pay and have other health issues,” Maynard said. “I use the food to get my vitamins and the things I need.” About half of the volunteers who work to help people like Maynard at Beyond the Walls are Villagers, said director Colleen Brooks.
And they help keep multiple pantry shelves full. Seeds of Hope, an all-volunteer-run organization of mostly Villagers, holds an 8-week concert season each year from February to March to collect money and food for the Wildwood Soup Kitchen and Food Pantry. This year’s has yielded more than $22,000 for the food pantry and soup kitchen and more than 6,500 pounds of food was collected in the same time period.
“It’s the Villagers that keep us going and keep the food pantry and kitchen supplied,” said co-chairman Kay Vierk, of the Village Rio Grande.
Those 65 and older are more likely to volunteer frequently than younger adults, according to the American Association of Retired Persons. Thirty-two percent of those 65 and older volunteer on a weekly basis, and on average, 10 hours per month.
“There is a stereotype, frankly, that residents of age-segregated communities like The Villages are ... closed off from the world around them,” said Jeff Johnson, AARP state director. “It’s tremendously powerful to see the truth — that many residents of age-segregated communities are setting powerful examples of giving back, not only to their immediate neighbors but to the communities that surround their gates, in a variety of ways and in response to a wide range of needs.”
Whether it’s donating food to a pantry, working at a thrift shop or refurbishing laptops to donate to kids in the Ocala National Forest, Villages freely donate their experience, skills and time to area organizations.
For more than a decade, Harry Martin has coordinated efforts to rebuild donated computers from Villagers to give to kids in the Ocala National Forest, Boys and Girls Clubs of America or to police departments.
“The police departments locate a family that has a child who may need a computer and doesn’t have the money for it,” Martin said.
Lately, The Villages Refurb Group, which is part of The Villages Computer Club, has been donating refurbished computers to Ritz Historic Inn in Ocala, which serves homeless veterans, said the Village Rio Ponderosa resident.
“They’re converting a building into a place for homeless vets to live, and they’ve requested 28 computers from us,” Martin said. “They want to put a computer in every room.”
The Villages Refurb Group has donated about 12 computers so far to the facility.
While the group no longer accepts donated computer towers, computers are still in high demand.
Plans are also in the works to donate six refurbished desktop computers to Sumter County Youth Center in Bushnell.
Meanwhile, Rich Laramee, of the Village of Poinciana, is working on refurbishing hundreds of cell phones collected from Sen. Dennis Baxley’s office, after the office upgraded to new phones. Through his work with SoZo Kids club, Laramee is working to refurbish the phones with batteries and chargers to donate to kids in the Ocala National Forest for emergency calls.
Organizations and causes that depend on volunteers are wise to look to a demographic like The Villages, according to AARP.
“Anecdotally, I wonder if there is actually more opportunity for communities like The Villages to incubate volunteer opportunities for older people that are outside-the-box, hyperlocal and focused on the specific needs of the community,” Johnson said.
Beth Malak, of the Village of Sabal Chase, is the volunteer chair at Ye Olde Thrift Shoppe in Lady Lake.
The proceeds from the shop funnel directly to UF Health The Villages Hospital to help buy items it needs or fund scholarships for high school students and hospital staff, said Lou Emmert, volunteer coordinator for the hospital’s auxiliary foundation. The auxiliary works with the hospital staff to identify what items are needed.
Recent items purchased for the hospital include SimMan, a mannequin that can be programmed to exhibit certain symptoms that is used for training by the hospital staff, Emmert said. The hospital also bought Xenex machines for sanitizing rooms after patients are discharged.
Ye Olde Thrift Shoppe has 202 volunteers, most of which are Villagers, like Pat Wesolowski, of the Village of Woodbury. She’s volunteered at Ye Olde Thrift Shoppe since 2008, its opening.
She had been living in The Villages for two years when she saw an article about how the shop was looking for volunteers to help start up.
“I was not bored or unhappy, but I love yard sales, flea markets and thrift shops,” Wesolowski said. “It sounded to me like it might be fun, so I went to look into it. I was really impressed that the proceeds went to the hospital.”
She spends about 11 hours a week either in the shop or working on items related to the shop, such as testing out items to make sure they are ready for sale.
“It seemed like a good philanthropic thing to do that the hospital would benefit (from),” she said.
After more than a decade at the shop, it’s now about the fellowship. The other volunteers have become her family.
She said even the people dropping off donations will thank her for doing what she does at the shop.
Malak credits the success of the thrift shop and its ability to help the hospital to help Villagers.
“We couldn’t do it without them,” she said. “We couldn’t survive without them.”
Staff Writer Julie Butterfield can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5254, or email@example.com.