Just how vital volunteering can be is nowhere clearer than in the case of food assistance, and it's fascinating that the experience is just as rewarding for the volunteers as for those they help.
Nearly 9 million older people in the U.S. are threatened by hunger every day. Most are eligible for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits, but many don’t apply. Just 33 percent of SNAP-eligible older people have signed up for SNAP, compared to 75 percent in other age groups.
There isn’t a single reason that hungry older people, most of whom paid taxes for years to support SNAP, aren’t asking for help now. Some are just too embarrassed to apply. Others think the benefits they’ll receive aren’t worth the time it takes to enroll in SNAP (benefits average $122 a month for people 60+). Others don’t understand that they are not taking food away from anyone else if they sign up for SNAP. Some just don’t know SNAP exists.
In 2011 and 2012, AARP Foundation and AARP Georgia recruited volunteers to help people in the four-county Atlanta area apply for SNAP benefits. To encourage older people to get help, ads were placed in church bulletins, local newspapers and radio stations urging them to call a toll-free number.
Related: Breaking hunger's grip in Georgia
No one expected what happened next. The SNAP volunteers received thousands of calls and wound up helping people from 159 of Georgia’s 162 counties. More than 15,000 older people applied for and were accepted in SNAP, generating $14 million in new benefits. Even better, their communities also got help — for every $5 in SNAP benefits spent, local economies receive $9.
Georgia volunteer Steve Kullberg has been working with SNAP for a year. "What I found really important about the SNAP outreach program was, when seniors come to see us, to treat them gently and respectfully. Think about it," Steve continued. "Most don’t want to ask somebody else for help — they’re at a point in their life where they think they should support themselves and do it on their own, but they just can’t. I’ve known some who were sacrificing their medication for food. Once they enroll in SNAP, it’s a lot easier for them to buy the healthy food they need at the grocery store."
"Volunteering for SNAP has changed my life," Steve said. "It is so wonderful — and so humbling — to be helping other older people. I know very well I could be among them if things had worked out differently for me."
Valuable, versatile and vital. Volunteering is a big part of who we are as Americans.