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Volunteer vexation

As the WWII generation grows older; a community built on volunteers waits for baby boomers to find more time to serve.

By SAUNDRA AMRHEIN
Published February 17, 2006


SUN CITY CENTER - It was an experiment in the sun:

A self-contained retirement community.

It would be run entirely by volunteers.

Volunteer leaders. Volunteer boards. Volunteer committees.

When it opened more than 40 years ago, 41,000 curious drove through to see what had replaced miles of pasture, two watering holes and a large cow shed.

Today Sun City Center thrives, topping 6,000 homes. But many fear its founding spirit of volunteerism is in danger.

Services such as the Sun City Center emergency squad and security patrol face a severe volunteer shortage. The older, World War II-era retirees say they're doing most of the work. They blame the shortage on baby boomers moving into high-dollar houses.

"They seem more content to give money than time," said Mike Anderson, chief of the Sun City Center Emergency Squad, a free ambulance service completely staffed by volunteers.

The service is struggling with its greatest volunteer shortage ever. "It could be the demise of this squad," Anderson said.

Experts say the problem is part of a greater cultural shift in the way older Americans volunteer. The younger retirees and baby boomers are willing to donate time - but on their terms. Many say they are too busy to volunteer. Many still work. Some travel part of the year. Others need a chance to unwind.

Jim Sumner, 64, spent decades working as a schoolteacher and coach, volunteering to take students on trips, he said one sunny morning while waiting for his softball team to take the field. Now he fills his hours with softball, church, bingo, shows and visiting relatives.

"I want time for me," he said.

Volunteer shortages "worse than ever'

Until the call comes, they sit on sofas reading hardbacks or baking scalloped potatoes in the kitchen. This is team No. 8 of the Sun City Center Emergency Squad.

Each of the teams works every eight days for a 24-hour shift. Some are dispatchers. Some drive residents to doctor's appointments. Others operate four ambulances, saving residents hundreds of dollars to handle non-life-threatening calls. They form a total of 440 volunteers, including 36 EMTs, or emergency medical technicians.

The volunteers don't need to have medical backgrounds. They just have to go through five months of training. These days, fewer are.

"Right now we are getting into a critical shortage of EMTs," Anderson said. "And the law says we can't run an ambulance without an EMT."

The goal is to have all four ambulances available. Some days, two ambulances must stay parked. Some nights, three are sidelined.

Signs imploring people to help the squad dot the community's roadsides.

"The shortages are worse than ever," said Martha Finley, chief of the Sun City Center Security Patrol, which runs marked cars from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. reporting suspicious characters to the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office.

The patrol squad has 1,400 volunteers but is vigorously trying to recruit more. "We beg people," said Finley, 72. "When people move in, we try to go out and talk them into it. We lose so many through moving or illness or death."

Directors of other services say most of their volunteers come from the 65-and-up crowd.

"The younger ones are retiring younger and more affluent," said Doris Ragland, head of Samaritan Services, which includes Sun City Center Ride, a free taxi service to doctor's appointments.

"I think it will level off ... once they get done golfing every day," she said.

Luanne Lane, a volunteer coordinator with LifePath Hospice, said she has plenty of older volunteers, but their health is taking a toll on their ability to help.

Those who started spunky and healthy a few years ago at age 79 can't do the work anymore, Lane said.

"We're somehow going to have to find a way to get the baby boomers involved in giving back," she said. "Sun City Center has always run strictly on volunteers. So I can definitely see that we're going to need some changes somewhere."

Picking, choosing a way to serve

Older and younger volunteers faced dramatically different working years, so it's natural that their retirements will be different, experts and retirees say.

The first waves of retirees learned to sacrifice and pull together through the Depression and World War II, while younger retirees faced a fast-paced, stress-laced work environment, experts say.

"Those (older) women stayed home with the kids," said Jean Fenney, 64, one of the younger volunteers at the Sun City Center Emergency Squad. "My generation of women worked and are tired of the corporate world."

Younger retirees, including the baby boomers, came of age during a generation of civic duty in the 1960s but were heavily influenced by the "get ours now" decades of the 1980s and 1990s, said Larry Polivka, director of the Florida Policy Center on Aging at the University of South Florida.

"I think there has been this shift in cultural values, and I've been curious of the impact on volunteerism and public service," Polivka said.

Bentley Lipscomb, state director of AARP Florida, said younger retirees and baby boomers are volunteering. But on their own terms.

They tend to be interested in high-impact events that have a clear start and finish point, he said.

"They don't want something open-ended," Lipscomb said. "They say, "Hey, If I wanted to do something like that, I would have stayed working.' "

The baby boomers are often called the "choice" generation, said John Gomperts, CEO of Experience Corps, a nonprofit national program that engages about 2,000 people older than 55 in volunteering and community service programs in 14 cities.

"They are going to volunteer, but for things they want to do," Gomperts said, "and they are going to be very passionate about it."

The point, he said, is to learn new recruiting techniques to tap into their energy and interests.

"There's great potential for this group if it's channeled," Gomperts said.

Meanwhile, just be patient, say younger residents of Sun City Center.

Brad Heid, 58, who works part time, said he sees himself volunteering when he gets older. Maybe for the patrol squad. The emergency squad seems like a big commitment to him.

While he's still healthy, he wants to enjoy his hobbies.

"When you get to the point you can't do sports anymore, you got to have something to do," he said.

John Bowker, who runs welcome sessions for new residents and publishes a weekly e-mail newsletter, expects the younger residents to grapple with the same existential questions as the older ones.

"We have never been able to recruit people when they first get into town," Bowker said. "After four years, they take a long look at the ceiling one night. They've seen the reruns of Law & Order, and they say, "What am I really doing?' "

Saundra Amrhein can be reached at 813 661-2441 or amrhein@sptimes.com