When AARP Michigan asked Gurtie Crater to help connect her Jackson County neighbors to the association's many programs and benefits, she quickly agreed.
She saw it as an opportunity to let them know that AARP is more than "a place to get a discount on your insurance."
See also: Volunteer with AARP Foundation Tax-Aide.
One year into AARP Michigan's community presence program, which aims to raise membership, volunteerism and awareness of AARP services, Crater thinks she's made a difference.
By networking at church, community meetings and elsewhere, Crater is building a new audience for programs such as Fraud Fighter College and You've Earned a Say, a series of community conversations about the future of Social Security and Medicare.
"People say, 'AARP does all that?' " said Crater, 70. "And I say, 'Yes. I was surprised myself.' "
Making connections through active individuals is a key part of AARP Michigan's three-year community presence effort, which kicked off in 2011 and targets Jackson County, Grand Rapids and Lansing.
"We have 1.4 million members in Michigan — and a staff of just 13 people," said Lisa D. Cooper, advocacy manager for AARP Michigan.
"There is no way we can reach out to everyone. If we can develop a strong volunteer network across the state, we can engage with more people in more meaningful ways."
At 160,000 residents, Jackson County is the 14th-largest Michigan county. Cooper said the area was selected because of its demographics.
"The city has an urban core, but the surrounding community is rural and agricultural," she said. "Politically the area tends to swing between liberal and conservative. People 65 and older make up 14.5 percent of the Jackson County population, slightly higher than the state's 65-plus population, and Michigan's economic struggles are represented here. "
"Jackson is a really good microcosm of the sort of places where we need to build grassroots efforts and volunteer leadership," she said. She said polls conducted during and after the community presence period will guide the design of future programs and activities.
"Already, a couple of surveys appeared to show that AARP recognition had grown positively," said Andy Farmer, AARP Michigan associate state director for health and supportive services. "We have formed some meaningful engagement in the area."
Lee Hladki, 65, volunteers as a legislative advocate, relaying the concerns of older Jackson-area residents to state lawmakers.
He said he was impressed with the 75-person turnout at a You've Earned a Say meeting and attributes the uptick to greater AARP momentum in Jackson County over the past year.
"It was a great mix of people with very thoughtful and practical ideas. It's so important that everyone have the chance to be part of conversations about policy," Hladki said.
In addition to seeking volunteers and new members, the community presence program has lined up a number of events for Jackson County and other target communities. While these seminars and workshops are held in a variety of locations throughout Michigan, the community presence areas are selected for a greater number of them.
Technicians at CarFit sessions will help older drivers improve their comfort and safety behind the wheel, while HomeFit workshops advise people about keeping their dwellings safe and accessible.
Promoting Yourself at 50+ helps older workers make their age an asset in the job search. Contests, a food drive and other events are planned.
Working with other groups
In addition, AARP Michigan is joining with other organizations.
For example, the Michigan office has formed a partnership with Jackson cable TV station JTV.
"Everyone in town watches it," Farmer said. "We were on the most popular talk show with the winner of our 'Why I Love My Grandparents' essay contest."
For her part, Crater is gratified at connecting newcomers with the programs and services they need.
"So many people don't know what to do and where to go to get help," she said. "AARP helps educate you on the world as it is now."
For information on events in Jackson County and throughout the state, visit the AARP Michigan website. For information about volunteering, email Andy Farmer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Melissa Preddy is a writer living in Plymouth, Mich.
Visit the AARP home page for tips on keeping healthy and sharp, and great deals.
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