Volunteerism and the Second Career: Senior Corps Volunteers lend expertise to communities in need 

Victoria Thornton-Lucas had to do something. 

Over the course of several years, the former Coleco Industries employee and dietary aide had witnessed the downfall of her Brooklyn, New York neighborhood, which had become overcome with homelessness, drug addiction and HIV/AIDS. 

Things had gotten so bad that at one point Thornton-Lucas witnessed a young man rummaging through curbside garbage for food, she said. 

In 1995, Thornton-Lucas, an active volunteer who also worked as a caterer serving up meals from her own stove to local families, decided that enough was enough. 

Using what money she had saved, Thornton-Lucas started the non-profit Bushwick Community Council Services Soup Kitchen and Pantry. Today, the soup kitchen and food pantry, which operated out of a local church until early 2005, serves about 2,000 meals a month. 

“I love what I do. Giving something back to the neighborhood where you live seems natural to me,” said Thornton-Lucas, 65, who currently lives in Ozone Park, New York. “You see your neighbor in need and if you can help, you do.” 

Thornton-Lucas is among the growing number of seniors and retirees volunteering and using the knowledge they gained during their working years to help others in their communities, according to a national program called Senior Corps. 

Senior Corps, which is based in Washington D.C, is administered by the Corporation for National and Community Service, the same community service network responsible for the AmeriCorps.

Nearly a half-million volunteers donated their services to 65,000 organizations across the country through the Senior Corps program last year. 

“We have seniors that donate their experience and time to local police departments and even the Department of Homeland Security,” the Senior Corps’ Jan Newsome said of the “not so run-of-the-mill” places where program volunteers are lending their expertise. 

As volunteers, some seniors, particularly retirees, can capitalize on a new-found freedom to do the things they are truly passionate about, said the program’s director Tess Scannell. 

“Some people go a lifetime wanting to do something different than what their occupation is,” said Scannell. “For instance, there are some who may have had a hankering to teach. But, because teachers in our society traditionally don’t make much money, they opted not to pursue it as a career.” 

Volunteering allows seniors and retirees to pick up on a second, often less strenuous, second career, she said. 

“Gone are the days when people retired to a golf course or into seclusion. Today’s seniors are fitter and more skilled than ever before,” said Scannell. 

Foster Grandparents, Senior Companions and RSVP (Retired and Senior Volunteer Program) are three programs within Senior Corps, she said. 

Through the Foster Grandparents program, volunteers serve as mentors and caregivers for at-risk youth with special needs. Senior Companions is a program that allows volunteers to assist the frail and homebound with everyday tasks like grocery shopping and alerting doctors and family members to potential problems. 

RSVP volunteers organize neighborhood watch programs, teaching English to immigrants and lending their business skills to community groups. 

In the past, Thornton-Lucas worked in marketing and used these skills to help her establish sponsors for the soup kitchen. She recently made a short video showing first hand the social needs in the community served by the soup kitchen. 

Aside from starting the food pantry, Thornton-Lucas has operated coat drives, job placement services for former prison inmates and GED programs. 

She was presented with the 2005 Community Champion Award from the MetLife Foundation and the National Association for Area Agencies on Aging this past April 22. She said a chunk of her volunteer work is done through the Senior Corps. 

“I don’t do it (volunteer) because I want recognition,” said Thornton-Lucas. “ I believe we are all put here to help one another.”

Fast Facts 

The Senior Corps is a national program that matches seniors with community service projects in their communities. Over a half-million seniors currently volunteer through the Senior Corps. 

To find out more about the Senior Corps, visit them on-line www.seniorcorps.org or call 800-424-8867 or TTY 800-833-3722. 

How Victoria Thornton– Lucas did it: 

If you or anyone you know is interested in starting a community service project, Thornton-Lucas’ story is an example of the steps it takes to succeed. 

Step 1: Fill a community void 

Victoria-Lucas saw a need in her community and work diligently to fill the void. As a result, she started the Bushwick Community Council Services Soup Kitchen and Pantry to address the social needs in her neighborhood. 

Step 2: Seek the help of family and friends 

Through a friend, Thornton Lucas learned about local classes offered to the public on how to run a non-profit organization. 

Step 3: Put skills to work 

A jack-of-all-trades, Thornton-Lucas worked in marketing, as a home-based caterer and dietary aide among other jobs, before officially starting the soup kitchen. As a result, she was able put her skills to work to serve her community. She even created a short video as a marketing tool for potential sponsors. 

Step 4: Ask for financial help 

Although Thornton started the soup kitchen and pantry using her own funds, she now has the support of sponsors that assist by donating some of the food and supplies.