AARP Eye Center
Ken Thomas joined AARP Florida in 2005 for the benefits. But it’s AARP that has come out ahead.
After retiring from his job in aviation, the 69-year-old from Boca Raton volunteered to help at an AARP convention in Florida. “They liked what they saw in me, and I enjoyed what I saw in AARP,” he says.
So today, Thomas works on everything from fraud prevention to driver safety to advocacy. He’s in his second round as AARP Florida’s volunteer state president, a position that keeps him busy at least 10 hours per week, often more.
“I’m investing my time to help my community be better,” he says. “AARP has a large megaphone.”
During the 2023 legislative session, Thomas was among the volunteers sporting red AARP polos, scarves and ties, meeting with lawmakers and testifying at committee hearings on AARP’s legislative priorities. He got to work on his personal passions: keeping utility rates affordable and advocating for money for home- and community-based services.
“This is the first year we’ve had a steady presence of volunteers in Tallahassee,” says Zayne Smith, AARP Florida’s director of advocacy. “Keeping this as a sustained part of the advocacy work that we do will pay dividends in the future.”
Making a Difference
It already is paying off. Among the big wins at the Legislature this year: funding for affordable housing to help low-income older Floridians age in place. Legislators also passed a bill to stiffen penalties for criminals who financially exploit older Floridians. And they moved to allow some certified nursing assistants to be trained as medication aides who can administer prescription drugs, freeing up nurses to do more nursing care.
Smith says volunteers like Thomas are vital to AARP Florida’s mission. And research shows that volunteering is good medicine; it may help boost a person’s mental and physical health and create new social connections.
AARP volunteer Sue Lehrer says her motivation came from her father. “I was raised that if you are going to complain about something, you’d better have a solution,” says the 69-year-old Sarasota resident.
Lehrer, who has a doctorate in health policy planning, spent much of her career advocating on behalf of older adults and people with disabilities. She also has personal experience with some of AARP’s top issues. She became a caregiver at age 9 when her dad was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. About three decades later, her husband, an internist, died from a rare disease at 39 when their boys were about 5 and 10.
“Because of what I had been through with my dad, I could handle it, as painful as it was,” she says.
Before moving to Sarasota in 2020, she spent seven years volunteering with AARP Texas. Now mostly retired, she does the same with AARP Florida. Lehrer is particularly passionate about working to improve nursing home care and guardianship laws. You don’t have to have a background in advocacy to make a difference, she says.
People who don’t like public speaking can fill out a petition or deliver information packets, she says. “It’s just so rewarding to try to move the ball down the field.”
To learn more about volunteering, go to aarp.org/FLvolunteer
Ann Hardie is a writer living in Atlanta.
More on Volunteering: