Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly identified a volunteer at Martha’s Table as Elaine Hemphill. Her name is Eileen Hemphill. The story also gave the incorrect title for Francisca Alba. Alba is the assistant director of volunteers at Martha’s Table. The story has been updated.
Beverly Jones apologized for smelling of onions. She’d been chopping the pungent ingredient as part of her weekly shift at Martha’s Table, which feeds the poor and homeless from its headquarters near 14th and U streets NW.
“I’m a lot better than I was,” Jones said of her culinary abilities, with a laugh. “My Thanksgiving morning goes a lot better with my new knife skills.”
The Spring Valley resident, 70, has volunteered at Martha’s Table for eight years, since she retired. The nonprofit group doesn’t keep exact figures on how many older and retired people offer their services, said Francisca Alba, the assistant director of volunteers. But she estimated that they account for 10 to 20 percent of the 14,000 people who help out every year.
That percentage is sure to increase as baby boomers continue to retire. D.C. resident Jocelyn Daughtry has seen the growth in the five years she’s worked at AARP’s Washington office. She has a dual perspective, as a volunteer who coordinates volunteers.
Daughtry, who won AARP’s Andrus Award for Community Service last month, maintains a database of 325 potential D.C. volunteers, most of them AARP members.
“I basically know the volunteers that fit, and what would be good for them to do,” she said.
According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, 18.7 million people over 55, or more than a quarter of the total, do volunteer work. They contributed about 3 billion hours of service every year between 2008 and 2010.
The information collected by the agency, which supervises AmeriCorps, Learn and Serve America and other service initiatives, offers a compelling reason for older people to volunteer: It helps them live longer and healthier. Several studies of older volunteers showed lower rates of mortality and depression and fewer physical limitations, regardless of other factors such as income, education or marital status, according to a 2010 “Volunteering in America” report from the Corporation for National and Community Service, the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
AARP regularly provides helpers to the Capital Area Food Bank, which is a partner of Martha’s Table, as well as Whitman-Walker Health and the Human Rights Campaign. But many of its volunteering opportunities are with AARP’s programs, which include Age Friendly D.C., the local branch of an AARP initiative that operates in 60 cities.
“I did nothing for a year,” Daughtry said about retirement, but then she followed her mother’s example and visited AARP. “I came down here to a meeting, and that was the beginning of the end. I have been here ever since.” Daughtry is officially a twice-weekly volunteer but can often be found at AARP on her days off.
Among the volunteers trained by AARP is Enid LeGesse, 66, a former college professor and administrator who lives in Silver Spring. After retiring last year, she became part of AARP’s health-care advocacy campaign in Maryland. She was also attracted to a different sort of training.
“The geek in me, who loves technology, found out that they do technology classes,” she said. “It could keep my skills up, as well as constantly learn new things.
“When I did my dissertation,” she recalled, “it was on that first Apple computer,” which was introduced in 1976.
LeGesse also volunteers at the Episcopal Diocese of Washington offices at the National Cathedral and at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension near her home. Among her many activities is teaching fellow members of the church’s seniors group about WiFi and the Internet.
“I love that kind of stuff, but I have a lot of peers who are like, ‘Do I have to?’ ” she said, making a growling sound. “Well, yes, you do.
“The teacher in me knows how to break it down in a way that they can grasp it,” she added, noting that she’s one of the group’s younger seniors. “Help them connect with their grandkids and old friends. Take away some of that fear.”
Jones, who worked for 26 years as senior vice president at a large nonprofit organization, first heard about Martha’s Table from its founder years ago at her church, St. Columba’s Episcopal near Tenleytown.
When she retired, she said, “I was looking for a painless way to volunteer. Something that was already managed. I would show up and somebody would use my efforts very efficiently.
“I value that as a retired person,” she added. “I didn’t want another job. I wanted a volunteer opportunity.”
She began working at Martha’s Table at the same time as a former colleague who had also recently retired. They still see each other weekly.
“Now we get a chance to catch up every Thursday, without having to plan it,” Jones said.
On her shift, she said, nearly all her co-workers are retirees. They prepare the soups and stews served to about 100 children at the organization’s early-childhood education center, and as many as 240 people fed daily by McKenna’s Wagon. The wagon is actually two movable soup kitchens that visit three downtown locations every evening with a hot meal, sandwiches, muffins and fruit.
Although she had been in the nonprofit field when she was working, Martha’s Table was a different type of service, Jones said.
“We worked at a very global level, with ministries of education in developing countries, so it was quite a remove, even though I had a real passion for it,” she said. “But here I wanted to get someplace closer, closer to the people who needed it. I wanted to know who they were.”
Eileen Hemphill, 73, had much the same motivation. She also arrived at Martha’s Table about eight years ago, but with a larger group. The 16th Street Heights resident is part of a contingent from Northwest Community Church that works on McKenna’s Wagon. She and three other church members, including driver Ulysses E. Campbell, 52, operate the service once a month.
“We gain as much as our clients do,” she said. “You leave every time with this feeling that you’ve made a difference in someone’s life. We could have been the only person who said something kind to that person that particular day.”
Hemphill retired from the D.C. government 20 years ago, although she’s had a few paying jobs since then. She began volunteering after her church’s new pastor initiated a more service-oriented approach.
“We didn’t just want to be in the city,” Hemphill said. “We wanted to be involved with the city.”
“We’re a church that’s not into celebrating the edifice,” added Campbell, who lives near Hemphill. “What we’re concerned about is getting out and really making a difference.”
The deep-voiced Campbell used to work in real estate but is now an actor and voice-over artist, which is not a full-time profession. Because he can drive the van, he goes out with other groups besides the one from Northwest Community Church.
“I had never been a volunteer-er,” he said. “This has been a deepening of interest in, and involvement in, what’s going in my community.”
Both Hemphill and Campbell expressed their admiration for the food wagon’s clientele, whose forbearance Campbell said impresses him most on rainy days. He dislikes working in the wetness, but getting drenched gave him a new perspective on the homeless and hungry.
“I get to go home and put on dry clothes,” he said. “The clients that we served were going to be wet until they dried out. Let me tell you something. Nobody’s humor changed. Everybody was perfectly charming and gracious and grateful.”
David Laughlin, a volunteer at the Capital Area Food Bank, is a little further up the food-production chain than the Martha’s Table crews. Most of the food bank’s 25,000 annual volunteers labor in its D.C. or Virginia warehouses, sorting packaged items. But the 69-year-old D.C. resident works outside the Northeast facility, overseeing the garden.
Laughlin, whose garden-oriented career included a stint at the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service, won the Food Bank’s 2015 volunteer of the year award for his efforts.
The garden is nearly dormant now, and Laughlin tends it alone. “Through spring and summer, it can be a very busy place,” he said. “On weekends we can have anywhere from 25 to 30 volunteers.”
He’s been a volunteer most of his life, Laughlin said, beginning long before he retired.
“I think that you can find a higher calling for yourself if you just put self-interest aside for a while and think about some higher values,” he said. “I’ve always tried to do that.”
LeGesse has a similar history. “I’ve always volunteered,” she said. “I was a Peace Corps volunteer. Volunteering allows me to pursue my passions, as well as make a contribution.”
But working with fellow boomers provides another reward, LeGesse said.
“I personally am trying to age gracefully,” she said. “I feel that part of that is helping others to see how they can do it, too.”
Jenkins is a freelance writer.