Before retiring, Valerie Ferrebee voted, signed petitions and volunteered in her community. But she was no political activist.
Today the former phone company employee is one of 55 AARP Connecticut leadership volunteers who meet regularly with state and federal lawmakers to discuss proposed legislation and its likely effect on older people. Hundreds of other volunteers around the state also engage in advocacy during the year.
“They’re actually regular people,” Ferrebee said of elected officials. “Whether you agree or disagree with them, you can have conversations,” said Ferrebee, 62, of West Haven. “It’s been enlightening to me to just interact with them, to just toss ideas back and forth.”
AARP Connecticut hopes to expand its legislative volunteer cadre. Volunteers are trained in areas such as facilitating discussions, testifying before legislative committees, researching bills and making effective presentations.
Details on bills
In addition, AARP staff provides tutorials so “people understand the ups and downs, ins and outs” of proposed legislation that has consequences for people 50 and older, said John Erlingheuser, AARP Connecticut advocacy director.
He said this year the legislative volunteers will keep their eyes on:
- Utilities, including residential power, telephone and Internet services. AARP wants to ensure that Connecticut residents have access to dependable, affordable utilities.
- Programs and policies that help older people stay independent and live in their homes as they age. AARP will advocate expanding home- and community-based programs that provide services such as home-delivered meals and respite care to ease the burden on family caregivers.
- Improvements to the health care system. AARP supports higher-quality care and better coordination among providers, patients and caregivers.
- Protections against age discrimination. Because of high levels of unemployment among people 50 and older, AARP wants to ensure their age does not work against them in the job market.
Although AARP takes positions on bills that affect older people, the organization doesn’t play favorites between the political parties.
There’s no specific time commitment for legislative volunteers. The state legislature is in session in the first half of the year—February to May in even-numbered years and January to June in odd-numbered years—but advocacy volunteers meet with federal and state lawmakers year-round.
Leadership volunteers agree to attend the group’s monthly meeting and to contact state and federal lawmakers to discuss issues of importance to older Connecticut residents, said Jim O’Brien, 65, of Cheshire, the volunteers’ chairman. In addition to specific bills, the advocates address issues that are priorities for AARP members, such as Social Security and Medicare.
When an advocacy volunteer testifies, other volunteers, dressed in red AARP T-shirts, attend the hearing to show their support, O’Brien said.
Some help from home
Some volunteers prefer a behind-the-scenes role or low-profile work.
“There’s a lot of ways that people can participate with us without being the focus of any attention,” O’Brien said.
Volunteers are needed to circulate online petitions, write letters to the editor and conduct research. Others contact legislators by phone or email when a bill of interest to AARP Connecticut members is being considered.
Ferrebee said being a legislative volunteer challenges her mind and offers her the opportunity to learn new skills. “The more you do, I think the healthier you remain because you’re active in mind and body.”
For information about becoming a legislative volunteer, contact Elaine Werner toll-free at 866-295-7279.
Theresa Sullivan Barger is a writer living in Canton, Conn.