Sami Al Ahmadi volunteers with an AARP-sponsored art class at the Pilsen Satellite Senior Center in Chicago. Photo by Alyssa Schukar.

By Lisa Bertagnoli

During the past year, Sami Al Ahmadi has improved his Spanish, polished his people skills, attended engaging events and met interesting people—all as an AARP Illinois volunteer.

Al Ahmadi, 21, from Hickory Hills, felt the need to volunteer earlier this year, and a Google search led him to AARP. After a brief orientation, he started devoting five to 10 hours a month to volunteer efforts in Chicago, including working the AARP table at Movies for Grownups and theater events.

He answers questions and helps interested attendees complete membership applications.

Al Ahmadi, who is studying biology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, plans to start medical school next fall. Although he’s decades younger than most AARP members, he intends to keep volunteering.

“I enjoy being able to help out the community,” he said. “It’s nice to help in a small way.”

AARP Illinois, which has about 500 active volunteers, wants to boost its number of lead volunteers—the kind who can work independently and encourage others to join an AARP cause or effort, said Ruby R. Haughton-Pitts, director of advocacy and outreach for AARP in northern Illinois.

Ellen Acevedo, associate state director for volunteer mobilization and engagement, joined AARP in August specifically to direct the renewed focus on volunteers.

Volunteers fall into two categories. Community-outreach volunteers work at a variety of events. Their tasks include:

Staffing information tables at Movies for Grownups and theater nights, which feature Broadway in Chicago performances.

Checking people in and helping them shred sensitive items at Scam Jam & Shred events, which warn attendees about popular scams.

Assisting at recruitment events, during which volunteers share their stories and persuade others to help out.

Offering caregiver support at CAREversations events.

Speaking and assisting at Medicare 101 presentations, which cover the program’s basics.

The organization also seeks tech-savvy volunteers who can assist at community programs by teaching basic technology.

Advocacy is another area in which volunteers make a difference. They call and send emails to state and federal officials and assist AARP staffers in Springfield and Chicago with legislative issues.

All volunteers attend a basic orientation and training session, which lasts about three hours. Advocacy volunteers also travel to Springfield for additional training, which includes shadowing a staff member.

Volunteering at AARP offers lots of flexibility. There is no minimum time requirement and no need to volunteer repeatedly at the same event. People can try different activities until they find a role that suits them.

“We will find something that you enjoy,” Haughton-Pitts said.

For the past 12 years, Jimmie Shelton, a retired operations analyst from Homewood, has volunteered at AARP’s Chicago office. Shelton, 74, shows up Mondays to restock office supplies and assist staff with their jobs.

Shelton has lobbied in Springfield and Washington on AARP issues. He also promotes AARP on Saturdays, when he operates a booth at the Swap-o-Rama Flea Market in Alsip. He hangs up an AARP poster and hands out applications for memberships.

For more information on how to volunteer, call AARP Illinois at 866-448-3613 toll-free or email aarpil@aarp.org.

Lisa Bertagnoli is a writer living in Chicago.

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