Mike Tomasko is a retired health care executive, president of his homeowners’ association, and an AARP volunteer. When he was invited to become a volunteer leader, he felt an obligation to do so.
“I could be happy not doing much of anything, no doubt about it,” Tomasko said. “But when important issues come up and you may be able to make a difference, if you have the health and ability, you should try, because others have volunteered before you.”
Tomasko, of West Fargo, was part of the inaugural AARP Volunteer Leadership Institute (VLI) class of 2013. One of 23 students, he graduated in January at AARP’s national office in Washington, D.C. VLI graduates came from a variety of careers, including business, education, marketing, and community activism. For Tomasko, it was health care.
“During VLI you really do learn the many issues AARP is involved in and you learn the history of this wonderful organization,” Tomasko said. “You get a deep exposure to the mission of AARP, how the organization runs, and its philosophy.”
The philosophy that resonates with Tomasko the most is that of AARP founder Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus. He is most impressed by the story of how AARP began, which involved Dr. Andrus finding a retired educator living in a chicken coop and deciding that there needed to be a better way of life for her retired colleagues and other older Americans.
Dr. Andrus, who founded AARP in 1958 and died almost 10 years later, believed that “an army of useful citizens can do what no one person can do alone.”
“Her vision and the work of AARP was never going to be accomplished without volunteers and volunteer leaders,” said Tomasko. “They want to be able to use the leadership talents of the VLI graduates to accomplish the important work of AARP.”
VLI required the students to go through an intense program. The students met five times during the past year – once in Washington, D.C., and four times in Chicago. “These were long days, but very rewarding and packed full of important information,” said Tomasko. Additionally, he estimates another 25 hours were spent monthly studying material, reading and in discussions with fellow students and faculty over the Internet.
“The wonderful thing about my VLI colleagues is that they came from all areas of the country and represented such diversity,” said Tomasko. “What I found was that the desires of our fellow Americans for financial security, access to affordable health care, help with caregiving, and solving hunger issues – they are universal desires that thread throughout the whole country.”
After working for more than 30 years in health care administration, Tomasko retired in 2007 and shortly thereafter became an AARP volunteer. The emphasis on Social Security and health care is what attracted him to the organization.
“I attended several meetings and they were talking about Medicare, Social Security, prescription drug coverage, and then the health care law,” said Tomasko. “Most of us become volunteers for a specific reason. My interest was in health care and financial security issues.”
Tomasko easily admits he has retired friends who are not supporters of AARP, much less signing up to volunteer. He agrees that some people perceive AARP to be a political organization. “Just the opposite,” Tomasko said. “This is truly a non-partisan organization, whose only interest is addressing those issues that will ensure quality of life for the retirees of today and tomorrow.
“It really doesn't matter what your political status is when you get a big health care bill and are without insurance. At that point you got problems. I witnessed that throughout my career in health care. That's why I got involved with AARP and my involvement has kind of mushroomed from there.”
Tomasko said there is a role for anyone who wants to volunteer with AARP. He noted there is a particular need for volunteer leaders and encourages others who have been leaders in their careers and leaders in their community to now share their leadership talents in doing the important work of AARP. As a member of the N.D. AARP Executive Council, Tomasko said he is pleased with the ongoing discussion of the council regarding the development of a state-level leadership course.
“We need senior leaders throughout North Dakota,” Tomasko said, “leaders who can identify other leaders in their community and who can also bring their talent and experience to work for AARP. Without a doubt AARP recognizes that its future will involve a continuing partnership between staff and volunteers.”
Tomasko was part of the team that interviewed nominees for this year's VLI class. “I was blown away by the talent and experience of the nominees. If these are the people that are volunteering for VLI and want to be part of the volunteer leadership team of AARP, this organization is going be just fine in the future.”