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Volunteer Spotlight: Lilia (Lil) Keys

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AARP Volunteer Lil Keys Reaches Out to Northern Virginia’s Hispanic Community

AARP volunteer Lilia (Lil) Keys serves on the AARP Virginia Executive Council; staffs the AARP information table at many events, especially those involving the Hispanic community; and speaks at AARP presentations on various topics, including caregiving and avoiding fraud.

To start, tell me a little about yourself.

I was born in Mexico, but I grew up in Laredo, Texas, so I’m bicultural and bilingual. My mother was from Mexico and Spanish was my native language. But it was more than just understanding the language; we were also part of the Mexican culture. We went to all the parades, and we celebrated Mexico’s Flag Day and Mexico’s Mother’s Day every year. We lived in two cultures and we had to function in both, so everybody spoke two languages, everybody knew two histories, and we just adjusted to that way of life, which is very different than anywhere else in the United States.

While I was in Texas, I went to college and then obtained my Master’s degree. After I married, I moved to Northern Virginia because my husband was in the military. I taught for four years and then became a guidance counselor at Woodbridge Senior High School, where I worked for 34 years. Guidance counseling is the backbone of a school. You become a jack-of-all-trades when you have that job.

I retired from full-time guidance counseling in 2008, but I continued working part-time for several years. I also continued taking students on international trips during the summer months, which I did for 15 years until I decided to stop two years ago.

What led you to volunteer for AARP?

I am always interested in reaching out and helping others who don’t have a voice, but I’m also interested in working where I can make a difference, and AARP offered me that opportunity because it’s a large organization. There are 33 million AARP members. You can do things when you have a large group. Equally, when I was in education, I belonged to the National Education Association and the Virginia Education Association (VEA) because we could affect change, we could affect advocacy, we could see things get done.

My involvement with AARP started with a social activity. I went to one of AARP’s “Movies for Grownups” with a friend who was also active in the VEA’s advocacy group. I got to visit with Amber Sultane, AARP’s Associate State Director for Community Outreach in Northern Virginia, and I could see that AARP offered wonderful support and resources for volunteers. I thought that, if you are looking to do something good for your community, volunteering for AARP is one way of doing it.

You’re on the AARP Virginia Executive Council. What is that?

The Executive Council is part of a small group of leadership volunteers who provide information and advice relating to AARP’s strategic priorities in Virginia. AARP has only eleven employees in Virginia, so the vast majority of AARP activities throughout the state are organized and run by volunteers. And across the state the regions are very diverse – the needs of the Northern Virginia area are not the same as those of the Richmond area, or the Hampton Roads area, or the Fredericksburg area.

When do you do AARP “tabling”?

Normally, I table at events that engage with many in the Hispanic community, for example at festivals celebrating National Hispanic Heritage Month and the health fair in Manassas. I don’t limit myself to events for the Hispanic community; I also volunteer at programs during Asian-Pacific Month.

I enjoy tabling for just about anything. I love that there’s a face from AARP that people can come and talk to at these events.

What professional skills carried over into your volunteering?

Helping people and reaching out to people, is the job of a counselor. This skill was an easy carryover to the volunteer work that I do with AARP. It’s very easy for me to approach and talk to people of all kinds, all ages, all ethnic backgrounds, with all kinds of problems. My organizational skills come in handy because you have to be organized to be a counselor and volunteer.

Can you tell me a particularly memorable story about your AARP volunteering?

In 2018 I helped Amber Sultane and Carmen Pastor, the head of Fuerza Contra Alzheimer’s – the Spanish version of “Force Against Alzheimer’s” – to develop a program in Spanish to provide information about Alzheimer’s disease, dementia research, and community resources for family caregivers.

I helped put together the Fuerza Contra Alzheimer’s program and translated the caregiving “Prepare to Care” program to Spanish. The program was at Saint Ann’s Roman Catholic Church in Arlington. We had food, we had programs in Spanish, it was all-inclusive, and people of all ages were welcome.

It was a lovely experience and a wonderful well-coordinated, well-attended, well-everything event. It was a tremendous success, and I would do it again. I’m always ready to help out any way that I can with the Hispanic community.

What is the most rewarding thing about volunteering for AARP?

To give back to the community. It is true that when you do something for somebody else, it comes back tenfold. To go to work with a lot of fun people just like yourself who are committed to a certain cause, who want to make this community better, there’s no greater joy.

Do you volunteer for other organizations?

Yes, I love the arts, so I have been an usher at Wolf Trap, at Arena Stage, and the Smithsonian Institution, mostly for exhibitions and programs at the Sackler Gallery. And, as I mentioned, I was on the advocacy group for the Virginia Education Association, and I still work with their retirees’ group.

How is your life at this stage different than your parents’ lives?

It’s as different as night and day. My parents did not have pensions, so the financial aspect is different. They ended up not doing well in the retirement years financially, and they developed health problems, so that hurt the pocketbook. My husband and I have pensions, are financially secure, have planned for the future, we can travel, and we can do whatever we want.

My mother lives in Texas, and my brother is there with her. I’m supportive, and I try to help with caregiving from a distance, but it’s because of my brother that our mother functions as well as she does. You do what you can. You have to understand the limitations of living so far away, which is now something that’s happening to a lot of people, especially in this area.

What do you do for fun, in addition to your AARP volunteering?

Babysitting my 17-month-old grandson gives me a lot of joy, and my husband and I do a lot of things for fun with him. I love to read and have joined a book club, and I still travel extensively. I have a renewed interest in Mexico, and I have started visiting special places in Mexico that are known as “magic towns” because of their history, folklore, beauty, sights, and sense of mysticism.

What would you tell younger people about the positive side of aging?

One thing that I tell my kids all the time is to learn new things every day. I would tell them that it’s the best time of life because you have more time, more financial stability, and you don’t care about what people say. Aging gives you a freedom that you didn’t have before, and I think that it’s a wonderful time as long as you are always willing to learn new things and challenge yourself.

What is your philosophy of aging?

My family has been through some difficult times. I have two children – a son and a daughter. My son had a child who passed away in an accident at nine years old. So we have been through very difficult times, but we’re coming out. We didn’t know what was going to happen. But the beauty of aging is that you realize things are going to work out, even horrible things will work out. I didn’t know that before. I think life gives us a few hard knocks for a reason.

It’s important to find joy in as much as possible, surround ourselves with beauty as much as we can. We ought to enjoy relationships with people; we ought to be active and do the things that give us pleasure. Do whatever makes you happy and then, of course, pass it on. At this point we have what we need, we’re content with what we have accomplished. It’s time to pass it on and to pay it forward.

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