By Tim Poor
Dessa Paris has been cycling seriously for more than two decades, but it was just two years ago that she decided to share her passion with other older adults.
The result was Boomers and Bikes, an AARP-sponsored program in which Paris leads cyclists age 50-plus on monthly scenic tours in the St. Louis area.
The program, free for AARP members and guests, is great exercise for participants and also benefits Paris, 56. “It’s given me the opportunity to strengthen and grow my own personal skills in communication, physical fitness and networking,” she said.
Her sentiments are echoed by other AARP volunteer leaders. AARP offers the chance to work on national programs such as Driver Safety, AARP Foundation Tax-Aide and the Fraud Watch Network, as well as locally generated activities like Boomers and Bikes.
In Kansas City and Springfield, volunteer-run events include cooking classes and Movies for Grownups.
Craig Eichelman, state director of AARP Missouri, said the organization is in search of people like Paris, who are willing to take charge.
“We have great opportunities for volunteers who want to lead and organize AARP activities,” he said. “Everything from organizing a community hike to sharing caregiving resources. There is something for everyone.”
Patty Gibbons, 62, an AARP community advocate in Battlefield, said the focus on volunteer leadership has been beneficial.
“We’re trained to work independently once a program is set up,” she said. “It’s a good thing. It makes volunteers more invested when they’re more in charge and not depending on someone else to set everything up.”
She said volunteers often step in to support one another when needed.
One of them is Donald Smith, another community advocate in Battlefield. He helps coordinate Movies for Grownups, a monthly event at the Springfield-Greene County Library Center that features refreshments, prizes and information about AARP activities. The movies range from recent releases to classics.
“It’s a way to let the public know about what we do,” said Smith, 69, a retired teacher. “It’s a lot of fun. We have a chance to support the community, meet new people and explore how AARP can be a benefit to you.”
Information and advocacy
Gibbons said volunteering is “a way to make you feel like you’re making a difference.” She and Smith said they particularly like helping people with fraud prevention and on important issues such as utility rate increases.
For Paris, an accountant for the St. Louis Health Department, volunteering is about introducing older residents to new sights in ways that keep them active. The monthly bike rides, held on Saturdays from April to October, cover trails that offer views of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers and the Gateway Arch, as well as stops at doughnut shops and outlet malls.
Some of the rides allow cyclists to spot wild turkeys, badgers or even snakes.
“I like being outside and feeling the freedom,” Paris said, “getting away from the stress of life.”
Tim Poor is a writer living in Clayton, Mo.