As a passenger on Austin’s Capital Metro buses, I had seen my share of AARP ads: smiling faces and discount offers for people age 50 and over.
In the classroom, AARP even surfaced on a copy editing exam. The question asked how to write the organization’s name in Associated Press Style. (It’s “AARP,” of course.)
Upon applying for an internship with AARP, I saw the nonprofit social welfare organization as a familiar crimson logo, neatly contained.
In the year since I came onboard, AARP has become more than a community fixture seen from a bus seat, and definitely more than a test question. The organization — comprised of thousands of employees — and its 38 million members are dreamers, movers and doers. They’re anything but easy to categorize.
For the past year, I’ve had the opportunity to set my phone aside and lean in. On the front lines in the fight for the social welfare of older Americans, I’ve met many heroes with keen insight about what it takes to be an advocate.
In August while writing about Hispanic Heritage Month, I met Albert Valtierra, a community organizer and volunteer. For the U.S. Air Force veteran, honoring the heritage of the 11.1 million Latinos in the United States began with collecting historical artifacts in the neighborhood and led to planning an all-ages block party. Showing respect to communities doesn’t have to be a solemn affair, he taught me. Sometimes it means ordering party hats in bulk.
Another hero, gardener Cindy Meredith, quoted Cicero during one of our interviews. The instructor for a Healing Herbs gardening workshop in Houston taught me that to grow something, even if it’s just a few plants on my porch, is to be human. After the destruction of Hurricane Harvey, we discussed rebuilding. One piece of her wisdom stuck with me: “Sometimes taking care of your health looks like making the effort to pause and take a deep breath.”
At the start of the new year, a pair of murder mystery authors captured my imagination with their unique take on “disrupting aging.” Dixie Everett and Sue Cleveland had given careers and family their all. After age 60, they decided to travel the globe and write fiction inspired by experience. Their lightness of spirit gave me a renewed sense of love for the craft at a time when I was at my wit’s end, overworked from writing research papers at my university.
AARP and what it stands for cannot be contained in any box. Nor can it be contained in a community heritage celebration, gardening workshop or within the pages of a novel.
“To serve, not to be served,” is the motto that unites all of AARP’s work advocating for older Americans. From AARP Foundation’s work fighting senior poverty to the Fraud Watch Network’s everyday educational materials, community is at the core of what my heroes do every day. Albert, Cindy, Dixie and Sue don’t just advocate for themselves. They're on the ground, organizing and helping others. At a time when I am figuring out how to unite my personal values with a professional future, to live honestly, my heroes are proof that living an unselfish life doesn’t end after a community-oriented career. Advocacy is a way of life, and it’s lifelong.
My heroes wear gardening gloves. Their passports are worn thin from use. At a time in life when society tells them to take it easy, they canvas communities to collect histories from the underserved but not forgotten.
As a young person who interned for a year with an organization for older Americans, my outlook will never again be the same. In seeing the selflessness of AARP heroes in the field and at the office, I realize that we’re united by a collective journey toward change. By example my heroes urge me to be brave, have fun and, if given the choice, run, don’t walk.