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Gaile Harrell Puts Her Customer Service Skills to Good Use as Northern Virginia AARP Volunteer


Gaile Harrell helped customers during her career as an employee of USAA Insurance. Now she puts her decades of customer service experience to good use as an AARP volunteer in Northern Virginia. I spoke with Gaile at The Swiss Bakery in Springfield, Virginia. Our conversation has been edited for length.

What is your name and your title?
My name is Gaile Harrell and I’m an AARP Volunteer Community Ambassador.

Where did you grow up and what was your career before you retired?
I was born in Washington, DC, at what was then Freedmen’s Hospital and is now Howard University Hospital. We moved to Falls Church, Virginia, and then to McLean, where I finished growing up. Later I moved to Ashburn, and I was employed by USAA Insurance. Seventeen years ago, when the company moved from Reston to Virginia Beach, I took an early out, retired from USAA, and went to work for JetBlue. After being employed with JetBlue, I moved to Jacksonville, Florida, for 14 years. Two years ago, I returned to Ashburn to help take care of my grandbaby.

When did you start volunteering for AARP?
I started about nine years ago, in Jacksonville. I saw an announcement on AARP’s web site that they wanted volunteers for Tax Aide. AARP’s Tax Aide program provides free tax preparation assistance every year during tax season. I contacted AARP because I wanted to be a volunteer tax preparer, but my mom got sick and I couldn’t commit to the time for training and such. They called me back and asked if I’d like to be a Client Facilitator – the person who greets people, gives them the papers, tells them what to do, and so on. While I was doing that, someone said, “I think you’d make a good AARP Community Ambassador,” and they promised to hook me up with the right person. That person called me, and it’s history.

Did you reach out to AARP to volunteer when you returned to Virginia?
AARP in Florida connected me even before I got here! AARP is a major sponsor of the Jacksonville Jazz Festival. It’s a big, free event that’s like a street party – so much fun. While I was volunteering for the festival, I told one of the AARP office workers that I was moving to Virginia. She knew the AARP Virginia State Director, Jim Dau, and she took my picture and sent it right to him. Then Amber Sultane, the Associate State Director for Community Outreach in Northern Virginia, reached out to me and that’s how I started volunteering here.
I love volunteering for AARP Virginia. It’s the best place to volunteer. Mostly I’m a Community Ambassador, but I’ve also been a Client Facilitator for the Tax Aide program in Leesburg. That program is a great operation, with excellent volunteer tax preparers. I enjoy greeting the people, meeting the people, so many different kinds of people. It’s open to anybody and everybody, not just older people, and it’s amazing how many young people come in. The volunteers are only trained to handle certain tax forms, though, so it’s not for people with complicated tax situations.

What professional career skills carried over into your volunteering for AARP?
My customer service skills, I would have to say. I like people, meeting people, one on one.
I’m actually sort of unretired now. I work part time at Royal Farms in Ashburn. My schedule is a bit flexible, which is important because I help out with my granddaughter. I also work for the Fairfax County Board of Elections at the satellite voting location in Reston once absentee voting starts in October, and I’m an Election Official in Loudoun County on Election Day. Working part time gives me a little extra so I can travel and do things I enjoy.

So you have two jobs?
Well, the Board of Elections is seasonal, but yes, to answer your question.

What would you say to other people about AARP volunteering?
If you want to volunteer, this is the best place to volunteer. Best, best, best. I’ll hear people saying, “Well, I don’t have time.” What do you mean you don’t have time? What do you do? And they end up saying, “Nothing.” You have time! Because it’s really your time when you volunteer with AARP. You volunteer when you are available. You can’t beat that.

What’s the most rewarding thing about your AARP volunteering?
I’ll be honest, I enjoy it all. I love meeting the people.

Is your life different from the lives of your parents?
My life is similar to my mom’s. My mom was very active and that’s why I always said I wanted to volunteer. She had worked as a civilian employee in the Department of Defense and was very involved in the National Association of Retired Federal Employees (NARFE). She was a volunteer at the Fairfax Hospital Gift Shop for 30-plus years. She played bridge, amongst other things. My mom did a lot. I lost my mom two months shy of her 100th birthday and my daddy passed at 88. We have a bit of longevity in the family.

What’s your philosophy of aging?
Aging is going to happen. No matter what you want, it’s going to happen. So you just have to enjoy it. Don’t retire and sit home and look at TV. Because I think you slowly fade away doing that.

What should younger people know about the positive side of aging?
It’s great! Look at all the people you meet, all the activities you can do, and all discounts you can obtain. The hardest thing for me is “the numbers” – you know, when you turn a certain age. My mom was still driving at 90. I had her stop driving at 93, and that wasn’t because she couldn’t drive. It was for her to be on the safe side because of everybody else, all the drivers who didn’t have as much patience as they should.

What do you do for fun, in addition to volunteering for AARP?
I’m a Red Hatter – a member of the Red Hat Society, an international organization for women. It’s fun. That’s where my brain relaxes.
I also enjoy my time with my granddaughter. She’s my little heartbeat. I’m just sorry my mom didn’t get to see her, but that’s life too.

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