Brenda Lee Carswell honed her skills in negotiating and organizing during her 37-year career at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Washington, D.C. Now she uses those skills as an AARP volunteer in Prince William County, Virginia. I spoke with Brenda at Madigan’s Waterfront in Occoquan. Our conversation has been edited for length.
Where did you grow up and what was your career?
I was born in Brooklyn, New York, but I grew up in Washington, D.C., where I was raised by my grandmother. I graduated from Strayer College and completed a graduate certification program in procurement at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Graduate School. For 37 years I worked for the Patent and Trademark Office, retiring in 2006 as a Senior Contracting Officer.
I enjoyed that job because I like details. I like to know what’s going on. My older sister was just telling me, “I remember when you were a little girl, and you sat down with the grown people but you didn’t say anything. You were polite, but you wanted to know everything.” I am like that.
During my career, I served as chairman for various diversity committees and represented the agency on a committee advocating accessibility for handicapped employees. For several years I also served as president of the clerical employees’ union, representing 3,000 employees. I started as a union steward; then they wanted me to be recording secretary; then recording secretary for the region. Then they said, “Well, Brenda, we need you to run for president.”
How did you get involved in volunteering for AARP?
After I retired, I stayed home for a year to decide what I was going to do. One day in 2007 I got a postcard from AARP inviting me to a volunteer forum at the library. I looked at that card and said to myself, “I think I’ll go over and see what they’re talking about.” I went to that forum and the AARP representative recruited me right then and there.
One reason I decided to volunteer for AARP was my experience caring for my mother before she passed away. She had gotten sick and I was going back and forth to New York trying to take care of her, along with my siblings. Eventually my son went up to care for her for several months, and he had to put her in a hospital. Afterward, I just always felt guilty, like maybe I could have done more. I wanted to find something that I can do to help somebody else.
What do you do as an AARP volunteer?
I’m a Community Ambassador; a member of the State Advocacy Team; AARP’s representative on the Prince William County Commission on Aging; and a volunteer mentor.
I’m doing a lot of coordinating now – not only volunteering at AARP events but taking the lead in organizing them. For example, I coordinate AARP dinner groups, where people get together to enjoy a meal and meet other local AARP members. That means I go to restaurants and sit down and negotiate with them – get the right group discount, make sure the venue complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act, make sure there’s convenient parking, and so on. Right now, I’m coordinating a dinner group that will take place at Brittany’s Restaurant in Lake Ridge in October.
I’m also taking the lead on the “Boomers and Beyond” event scheduled for September 14 at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at George Mason University in Fairfax. It’s a free half-day program that includes presentations on things like the benefits of lifelong learning, how to get your legal documents in order, and how to downsize and declutter your home.
So, I’m finding that I’m still using the skills I learned from my job and as union president. Negotiating and organizing – I did a lot of that, and I still do.
Volunteering on the State Advocacy Team is interesting, too. It’s not scary like people would think. When we go to Richmond to talk to legislators, AARP’s state advocacy director helps decide where we should go. AARP supports legislation that my state delegate has sponsored: a “Work and Save” retirement savings bill and a caregiver income-tax credit bill.
Is there any particular story that stands out regarding your AARP volunteering?
Years ago, I was volunteering with an AARP colleague at a company health fair. A young man came up to our table and said his father had been taking care of his mother, but suddenly his father got sick and couldn’t take care of her anymore. The young man said to me, “Can you help me? I don’t know where to turn or what to do.” The first book I gave him was AARP’s “Prepare to Care” Guide. He was so grateful. That stood out for me because I didn’t know that information back when I needed to know it, when my mother was sick. That touched me, to be able to help that young guy.
What are some of the other organizations you volunteer for?
I volunteer for several organizations, including the League of Women Voters-Prince William Area, the Prince William County Reentry Council, the Kennedy Center, the Prince William County Committee of 100, and my homeowners’ association.
I sit on the Prince William Reentry Council representing the League of Women Voters. We provide voter information and education to inmates before they get out of jail, and then again at a resource fair they’re required to attend after they get out. I give everybody in the room a two-minute spiel about the League of Women Voters and then they can come around and talk to us about different things. Someone needs a job, where and how to vote, or know how they can get housing.
The League also does voter registration in all the high schools in the county and for new U.S. citizens. In June we were at a celebration for around 900 new citizens, and 700 of them registered to vote. When they come out of that auditorium they’re crying, they’re so happy, they’ve got their beautiful certificate. They’ve got the voter registration application already filled out and we just check to make sure everything’s there as required.
The first time I attended one of these celebrations, I cried. So that’s something that I really, really enjoy doing.
At the Kennedy Center, I’m the volunteer shift leader for the Visitor Information Center. I have seven other volunteers, and I coordinate the schedule to make sure our shift is covered every Saturday afternoon. And the Committee of 100 is a nonpartisan organization that puts on civic forums about issues in the community. We have educational forums, as well as candidate forums that we put on in partnership with the League of Women Voters.
What’s it like to represent AARP in your community?
About 75 percent of my volunteering is connected to AARP even if it involves another community organization. I’m often representing AARP and the interests of senior citizens. For example, the Prince William County Commission on Aging includes a representative from every county magisterial district, as well as private citizens representing groups like AARP. Every month we have a presentation on issues affecting seniors – senior housing, fraud against seniors, substance abuse. As AARP’s representative, not only do I learn from the presentation, but a lot of times I have information to bring to the other commission members. Brochures, events we’re doing, things that affect seniors.
And I can work with other local organizations to co-sponsor events, like the Scam Jam we’re doing on October 26 in Woodbridge. Scam Jams are free events where speakers talk about how to avoid frauds and scams that target seniors. AARP worked with Fairfax County to hold two Scam Jams in the last two years, so I opened my big mouth and said, “We need to have one in Prince William County.” I took it upon myself to find a venue. I worked with the Area Agency on Aging and arranged to use one of our county buildings. It’s perfect – an auditorium, a place for resource tables, a cafeteria for lunch. Now my next task is to coordinate all the Scam Jam volunteers. I need about 18 and I have a list already.
Even at my church, they know – “Oh, you’re the AARP lady.” I’ll ask them what information from AARP they need, because I’ve got it all in my car. I’ve got an office in my car.
How is your life different from that of your parents or your grandmother?
Well, for one thing, I’m educated. I know I have a better quality of life because of my grandmother, who was a domestic worker. We had a good quality of life then, but she talked to me about voting. That’s why I’m a member of the League of Women Voters. That woman told me that if I didn’t vote, she’d kill me. That’s why I’m involved with the League; I had my mother on one side and my grandmother on the other.
I knew that my grandmother’s life was, well, as a child you don’t really realize how hard somebody’s life might be. You might realize that as you get older, as an adult.
What’s your philosophy of aging?
I age gracefully. I work out at the gym. I believe in doing the best I can with what I have. I’m able to do more things than when I was younger – travel, go here, go there. And being retired makes it even extra better.
What would you say to other people about volunteering for AARP?
The first thing I tell people is that I volunteer for a lot of organizations and AARP is number one. It’s the best. They appreciate their volunteers, they take care of their volunteers, they respect their volunteers. And I like that.