The birthday cake at April’s AARP Wyoming leadership meeting in Sheridan celebrated not an individual, but 10 years since AARP opened an office in Wyoming.
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Past State Presidents Bill Marsh and Les Engelter and current President Cathy Gonzales have spent many years traveling across Wyoming to listen, educate and advocate for the state’s 50-plus population and AARP members.
“We’re also on a quest to find the best green chili in Wyoming,” Gonzales said with a laugh. “So far it’s Laramie.”
But the three presidents, along with current AARP State Director Tim Summers, paused to reflect on the huge scope of what’s been achieved since the office in Cheyenne opened.
Summers, who had worked with AARP in regional offices in Texas and Utah, began working exclusively in Wyoming in late 2001 as the advocacy representative, becoming director in 2009.
“This was a very significant investment that AARP had to make; it wasn’t a decision that was made overnight,” he said. “It took a long time to get all the resources together and all the ducks in a row, but I think it’s really paid off.”
Prior to the opening, a volunteer leadership council represented Wyoming members to state and federal lawmakers.
“We realized for a long time that we could not do the advocacy that we wanted to for such a large state with so few people,” said Marsh, Wyoming’s first AARP president. “As soon as we got the state office opened, we saw a change almost immediately.”
Engelter became Wyoming’s AARP president in 2003, but was also part of the volunteer leadership council to create the state office. He said the volunteers from across the state would get together quarterly, get assignments, but then no one would see or speak with each other until the next meeting.
“You had no one pulling things together, and it really made things difficult,” he said. “People were on their own and probably a lot of things were left undone.”
AARP representatives from other state or national offices would periodically fly in to help, but it wasn’t always the same person and was a very temporary solution.
Now, with the staff and Cheyenne office, members of the Executive Council act as liaisons between their communities and the state office, allowing AARP Wyoming staff to hear from a more diverse group of voices in the state and share that diversity of ideas at the state and national levels.
Rita Inoway served as Wyoming’s first state director. Inoway said that opening the office was a challenge, but the combined efforts of hiring a strong, smart team and having outstanding volunteers around the state made a vast difference in the success of the office.
“I cannot give enough credit to the volunteers who represented the association and worked with us,” she said. “Their knowledge of the state and their personal relationship with legislators helped us immensely.”
Staff and AARP volunteers alike are very proud of the inroads made in advocacy in the last 10 years.
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