Jean Bindeman shows a snake to children visiting the Aullwood Audubon Center near Dayton, where she has been volunteering for 25 years. Photo by Maddie McGarvey

By Noreen Willhelm

For Jean Bindeman, volunteering at 90 is based on two strong convictions: “Life is for living,” she said. “You are part of the world and creation, and as such a person, you are responsible for trying to make it a better place because you are alive.”

Bindeman, a retired high school math teacher, has been a volunteer for 25 years at the Aullwood Audubon Center near Dayton, where she spends up to five days a week leading environmental and agricultural programs.

She’s volunteered throughout her life. “For years, I hid how old I was,” Bindeman said. “People don’t think you’re competent. When I turned 90, I thought it would be good to let people know it does not mean you are senile and falling apart. Yes, I am active!”

She’s made some accommodations to aging. “I don’t work in the summer because I don’t handle the heat well,” she said. “I don’t need a cane or anything, but if I am walking trails with roots and rocks, I use a walking stick. You have to be realistic.”

Bindeman encourages others to volunteer: “Pick something you enjoy and then you have options to contribute to life in general.”

Betty “BJ” Blanchard started volunteering in nursing homes 25 years ago. At 89, she has no plans to quit. Certified as an ombudsman associate, she works with the state Long-term Care Ombudsman program in facilities in Northeast Ohio, near her Painesville home. She visits residents and listens to their concerns.

“Some of these darling people don’t have anyone to hold their hand,” she said. “You sit on the bed and hold their hand.”

Honored For service
Blanchard won this year’s AARP Ohio Andrus Award for Community Service, which recognizes people who enrich their communities in line with AARP’s mission and vision, as personified by founder Ethel Percy Andrus. Marie McCabe, volunteer coordinator for the Long-term Care Ombudsman in Cleveland, nominated Blanchard for the award.

“She has devoted hundreds of volunteer hours in advocating for thousands of consumers. Working with [staff], she has resolved hundreds of cases, ranging from complaints about food to abuse of residents,” McCabe wrote, noting that more than half of long-term care residents do not have family or visitors.

“BJ is indispensable in helping their voices be heard, empowering them, and improving their quality of care and life,” she wrote.

Nelson Okuley, 91, is a lifelong volunteer, having spent 40 years as a volunteer firefighter, a Boy Scout leader and, most recently, a mentor to school-age boys in Defiance.

His children insisted he leave the fire department when he had some health issues, but that’s one of the few changes he’s made. He volunteered earlier this year at the National Scout Jamboree in West Virginia, where he slept in a tent like other campers and helped manage a zip line.

For the past two years, Okuley has been a favorite mentor for boys ages 7 to 13 at the Independence Education Center in Archbold, a school for students needing intensive support. Brenda Thierry, intervention specialist, is a big fan.

“I love him coming out to mentor because he just brings such joy,” Thierry said. “He never misses a beat. Kids really enjoy working with him because he’s so amazing.”

“I help them with reading and spelling, play games with them,” Okuley said, “I give them someone who pays attention to them.”

Okuley helps his son on their farm in Highland Township and intends to continue his work in the community as long as possible. When asked if he plans to return to West Virginia in 2019 for the World Scout Jamboree, he said with a chuckle, “I told them, at my age, I don’t schedule.”

Noreen Willhelm is a freelance writer who lives on a farm just west of Dayton, Ohio.