In the noisy sorting room, Sue Aube and Judy Gates check cans and boxes from a food drive, tossing damaged or expired goods on a conveyer belt.
The women volunteer behind the scenes at the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York, which collected and distributed 22.4 million pounds of food for the needy in 2009.
The food bank volunteers see the need firsthand: Aube, a retired nurse, recalled one cold day seeing a woman standing in line who had no shoes. "I hope I never have to worry about food," said Aube, 65, of Loudonville.
Each year 5,000 volunteers give about 40,000 hours of their time to this food bank outside Albany that serves an area stretching from Westchester County to the Canadian border.
"We never could've afforded to pay staff to do all that work," Executive Director Mark Quandt said.
He pointed out the mounds of pastries from grocery stores in the warehouse and the massive freezer stacked with food 30 feet high. Pallets of squash from the food bank's 15-acre farm, also worked by volunteers, awaited distribution. Each year, the farm produces 100,000 pounds of broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes, spinach and other fresh produce for the food bank.
"A lot of people feel good that they're using their time in a productive way," Quandt said. "It's the kind of thing that when you're done doing the work, you know you did something to help somebody."
When volunteers help the needy, they also boost their own health. Studies show that volunteers have lower rates of heart disease and depression than people who don't give of their time.
Volunteering can also provide a sense of purpose for people who are in transition caused by retirement or an empty nest. To realize the health benefits, volunteers should serve 40 to 100 hours a year, studies show. That's a commitment of just a few hours a week.
"When we volunteer, we learn," said Lois Aronstein, AARP New York state director. "We have new experiences; we meet new people. We're not isolated — all important factors in helping us live longer and more satisfying lives."
In giving back to others, New York has lots of room for improvement. Only 19 percent of New Yorkers volunteer, ranking the state dead last in the nation.
Finding creative opportunities to volunteer is where AARP's Create theGood.org comes in. The interactive website links volunteers with opportunities nearby, and groups needing volunteers can list events and opportunities. A recent search of volunteer opportunities in New York's Capital Region turned up a "rock/metal drummer" for a band that performs at senior centers and nursing homes, a website specialist for the Red Cross, and sexual assault crisis hotline staffers. Other features of Create the Good include tools for organizing projects such as used book sales or yard sales to raise money for favorite charities.
When Aronstein worked as a senior center director, she taught a course for those leaving the workforce. She distributed calendars, instructing the class to fill the empty time slots — a full calendar meant a successful retirement.
Pinpointing what you're passionate about is key, Aronstein said. In New York City, volunteers have offered their services as grant writers, in animal shelters and to help high school students filling out college applications.
For Aube and Gates, who joked with each other as they sorted food, the time spent at the food bank was clearly more than hard work.
"It becomes almost like family. You look forward to coming here," Aube said.
Gates, 71, of Niskayuna, said it's also changed her grocery shopping habits.
"For one thing, I always now check the expiration date on something," she said.
Donna Liquori is a freelance writer based in Albany, N.Y.
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