Pegi Orsino, executive director of RSVP Suffolk, said insurer United Healthcare found in a 2012 study that 42 percent of seniors surveyed did not volunteer because they weren’t asked. That’s not an issue at the Retired Senior Volunteer Program, which has offices in Smithtown and Amagansett.
“We have taken it upon ourselves to do the asking,” Orsino said. “Our mission statement says we support older Americans who want to remain active in their communities by offering them opportunities so they can engage in civic activities and make a difference in someone’s life.”
The nonprofit’s 900 volunteers are mostly retirees 55 and older who donate their spare time to serve individuals and families, some using skills and talents they developed during their working years, though previous employment is not required.
Once a week, Alice Petruny, 93, can be found in the cafe at the Nesconset Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation baking cookies and pretzels for the residents.
“I’m happy doing it,” said the Nesconset resident and great-grandmother, who turns 94 in October. “I enjoy the people. If I can help them it makes me feel good. It keeps me busy and it makes my day.”
Petruny, who worked for Citibank and still drives, has been helping at the center in different capacities for 10 years.
Since its founding in 1972, RSVP has been matching the interests and abilities of Petruny and other seniors with volunteer opportunities offered by more than 150 nonprofit agencies in Suffolk, including itself.
“All these organizations depend on volunteers to drive their programs,” said Orsino, 66. “We act as a liaison between the person interested in volunteering and the organization that suits their interest.” Many retirees want to serve but don’t know how or where to begin, she added.
“For the last decade I’ve been talking to seniors that want to remain active, vibrant and give back to their communities,” Orsino said. “We have seniors that like what they’re doing; they’re not moving away; they’re not moving to Florida. It’s my feeling people want to volunteer; they just don’t know where to start.”
RSVP volunteers range in age from 55 to 101-year-old Sara Ameri of Lindenhurst, who filed, answered phones and took attendance at the Spangle Drive Senior Center in Babylon, where she was a member, until she went on medical leave in April. She was in the RSVP ranks for 14 years, one year less than Petruny.
Retired CEOs, housewives, teachers, college professors and administrators are among those on RSVP’s roster of volunteers. “Anyone with a skill to share,” Orsino said.
‘That human touch’
Most volunteers are between 66 and 76 years old; one-third are men. They are active in museums, schools, child care centers, food pantries, animal shelters and other places.
And sometimes they are literally just a phone call away.
Charlotte Soper, 85, a widow who lives in Islip, said she looks forward to the daily telephone call she gets from a volunteer in RSVP’s Telephone Reassurance Program. The volunteer calls to ensure that she is well and to engage her socially.
“God called my husband, then he called my dog,” Soper said. “I’d be lost without RSVP. That human touch of somebody calling, I find that comforting. It’s a struggle to wake up every day and face the world. I like to know somebody cares.”
At the rehabilitation center in Nesconset, director Erin DiPierro said dozens of “dedicated, hardworking” RSVP volunteers serve those in need.
“They deliver mail to residents and help with recreation programs and transporting residents to activities,” she said. “We couldn’t do it without them. RSVP is an asset to the community.”
Spouses Eloise and Fred Husch, of Port Jefferson, assist the staff at St. Charles Hospital, also in Port Jefferson. Former bank manager Eloise, 67, volunteers in the ambulatory surgical unit, meeting, greeting and comforting patients, and explaining procedures to them.
Fred, 70, who owned a construction business, works in the outpatient rehabilitation unit. “A therapist might need something, a piece of equipment, a towel, an ice pack,” he said. “We are there to help so they can spend more time with patients.”
Initially, RSVP recruited volunteers at health fairs, through media and presentations at libraries, but word-of-mouth has played a major role, Orsino said. Those who enroll receive a form with 24 categories of interest they can choose from, including environmental gardening, mentoring and organizing special events. Although RSVP operates in Suffolk, Nassau residents can join its band of volunteers and benefit from its services.
Orsino leads a staff of about a dozen. Eight of them are paid because RSVP’s programs are funded by local, state and federal grants. The two volunteers with the nonprofit’s Community Computer Connections Program, which provides refurbished computers to those in need, are not compensated.
RSVP Suffolk was founded in 1972 by Elsie Cosby, its first director. Cosby died in 2011. The nonprofit is one of 35 RSVP projects in New York State and among 750 in the United States. It is the only one on Long Island.
RSVP — which is also supported with funding from foundations and private donors — offers an array of free programs and services and provides trained volunteers who conduct self-management workshops to help people control conditions such as arthritis, obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
The Feelin’ Good Program prepares volunteers to offer guidance to seniors on maintaining healthy lifestyles, and the Speakers Bureau trains volunteers to speak to seniors on such topics as Medicare basics, managing medication, decluttering their home and avoiding scams that target seniors.
The America Reads literacy program was developed for students in elementary school who need help with their reading skills.
Jean Confessore, of St. James, a former teacher and guidance counselor in the public school system who describes herself as “a very young 70,” is in the Speakers Bureau but also conducts RSVP’s Living Healthy with Better Choices workshops. She is also certified to do CPR in one of RSVP’s newest programs: Tai Chi for Seniors, which is aimed at improving balance and muscle strength.
“I’m very grateful for RSVP,” said Confessore, who was named RSVP’s Outstanding Volunteer 2016. “It’s a wonderful organization. They have given me many opportunities to express myself and use my various talents. You’re not only extending yourself, but you get so much in return. It keeps you young, active and alert. As you get older, you want to keep the mind active.”
Stan Jurgielewicz, 57, of East Setauket, isn’t retired, but he volunteers in RSVP’s Community Computer Connections Program. Once a week, after work — he is in charge of the data center at St. John’s University in Queens — Jurgielewicz delivers and installs donated computers refurbished by RSVP volunteers in the homes of low-income individuals, families and veterans.
Jurgielewicz said that more than 4,000 computers have been installed since the program began in 2006. He said he has made 800 deliveries since he joined RSVP in 2013 and hopes to do more when he retires in five years.
“You have families with young children, some have a disability and are homebound and can use it to communicate with doctors and keep in contact with family and friends,” Jurgielewicz said of the computers. “I get a lot of personal satisfaction from helping people.”
‘A caring organization’
RSVP volunteer Jeff Laub, 64, of Oakdale, is trained to conduct workshops and answer questions from people calling about Medicare. He helps in the agency’s Living Healthy With Chronic Conditions program.
Laub, a former union representative, said, “RSVP is a caring organization, and the people volunteering are caring.”
Orsino agrees. Besides heading the nonprofit, she volunteers in RSVP’s chronic disease and diabetes workshops. "My job is not only to be behind the desk to keep contracts going,” she said. “I like to get involved.”
RSVP volunteers are recognized for their dedication at an annual Tribute Day luncheon, which this year is on Sept. 14. Orsino said their efforts contribute to Suffolk County’s economy, noting an Independent Sector study that put the value of a volunteer hour at $27.59.
“In 2015, our seniors collectively rendered 101,000 hours,” Orsino said. “That is millions of dollars that these organizations can’t afford to pay or any foundation or corporation afford. Seniors are a natural resource that isn’t diminishing. Their free time equates to an investment of priceless years of experience, energy and caring.”
She urges seniors “55 and better” to help benefit others.
“My idea of success is anything you can do to get a sedentary senior off their couch and into something that interests and helps others,” she said. “You only retire from work, not from living.”
Irene Grzegorczyk felt she had too much time on her hands when she retired 10 years ago at age 71.
“I was getting on my own nerves,” the Brentwood resident recalled. “I was looking for something to do. You can’t be home doing nothing.”
Grzegorczyk had worked as executive assistant to the chief financial officer for Entenmann’s bakery and quit after 17 years with the company when her unit was transferred to Pennsylvania in 2006.
Three months after retiring, Grzegorczyk, now 81, said she went online and found RSVP Suffolk, the Retired Senior Volunteer Program that matches volunteers with opportunities to serve others. The nonprofit has offices in Smithtown and Amagansett.
Pegi Orsino, RSVP’s executive director, told Grzegorczyk about a new Community Computer Connections Program that RSVP had started to provide refurbished, donated computers to low-income individuals and families, veterans and nonprofit organizations for free.
“This sounded very good; Pegi said, ‘I think you’d do great,’ ” recalled Grzegorczyk, who became coordinator of the program’s support staff.
With the help of volunteer assistants Phyllis Desilva of Kings Park and Janice Ferro of St. James, Grzegorczyk keeps a record of donated computers and lets the volunteers who refurbish them know where to collect the devices from donors and where to deliver and install them once repairs are complete.
“We get a lot of phone calls looking for computers, maybe 20 a week from agencies and five or six from individuals,” Grzegorczyk said. “We give to veterans in Nassau, too . . .. If someone has trouble with their sight, we try to get them a bigger screen with bigger letters. It really keeps us very busy. I’m supposed to donate eight hours a week; I guess I give about 16.”
The rewards are worth it, she said. “We get such wonderful letters, thank-yous. It’s what keeps me young and going.”
Busy as she is, Grzegorczyk once found time to read to first-graders in RSVP’s America Reads program. “I was saying yes to everything,” she said.
The Suffolk County Office for the Aging recognized her efforts by naming her Senior Citizen of the Year 2016. She recently accepted her award at the Brentwood Senior Center and encouraged other seniors to volunteer their time.
“It’s a good feeling when you can help people,” Grzegorczyk said. “There are so many who need help out there.”
— Merle English
Sign me up
Anyone 55 or older can become an RSVP Suffolk volunteer, and previous workplace experience is not required.
“Our mission is to invite all adults 55 or better to join us in giving back to the community all the riches of your life experience that could benefit others,” said Pegi Orsino, RSVP’s executive director, adding that the Retired Senior Volunteer Program partners with more than 100 organizations to help those in need.
Among them is the Ursuline Sisters and Associates of Tildonk at St. Ursula Center in Blue Point. The retirement home houses 12 nuns and offers opportunities for volunteers to read to them, sort donated items, greet guests and help at teas, luncheons, craft fairs, spa nights, golfing and other fundraising events.
Sandy Horan, the administrator, said the Ursuline Sisters are dedicated to “radical Gospel living to effect change in ourselves, our church and our society by standing with the oppressed economically poor, especially women and children.”
For more information on helping the group or others call RSVP coordinator Terri Catania at 631-979-9490, ext. 15. Online, visit www.rsvpsuffolk.org
You might consider . . .
The Welcome INN, a soup kitchen in Port Jefferson that serves 60-80 people five times a week. Their guests are senior citizens, families and young children. Twice a month volunteers help plan, cook and prepare serving platters; volunteer drivers pick up donations at local markets, food establishments and Island Harvest distribution centers.
Contact: RSVP coordinator Denise Passarelli, 631-979-9490, ext. 23.
The Federation of Organizations, a nonprofit based in West Babylon and funded by Suffolk County, is looking for foster grandparents to help out in elementary schools. Volunteers work alongside teachers and interact with students by reading to them and telling them stories.
Contact: Elizabeth Galati, 631-669-5355.
For more information and volunteer opportunities, contact the LONG ISLAND VOLUNTEER CENTER at 516-564-5482; longislandvolunteercenter.org