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.
See Also: AARP Founder Biography
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.
Marsh said that before the state office opened, Wyoming legislators were sitting on a lot of issues related to AARP members. Lawmakers might have a question that the volunteer leaders couldn’t easily find the answer to.
“Now, I marvel to see the information at our disposal and the legislators have at their disposal that is generated at the state level,” Gonzales said.
In 2003, the Office of Consumer Advocate was established with the help and support of AARP Wyoming. This office represents utility customers before the Wyoming Public Service Commission, often regarding large utility rate increases.
AARP is one of several consumer advocacy groups that evaluate and, many times, fight against utility rate increases, but Summers, who Engelter describes as eating, sleeping, and breathing advocacy, said AARP played a pivotal role.
“We have been involved in utility cases since 2002,” Summers said. “Over the last 10 years, we have helped save people (in Wyoming) more than $300 million.”
Gonzales has also been pleased by AARP Wyoming’s advocacy role, citing the organization’s support of identity theft protection laws passed in 2007, along with an identity theft awareness campaign and shredding events.
Earlier this year, AARP helped defeat a bill at the Wyoming legislature that would have converted the pension plan for state employees into a 401(k)-like system, making retirees’ funds less secure.
But with AARP’s increased visibility in Wyoming has also come the invitation from other organizations to work together.
In 2003, the Wyoming Department of Health was concerned about West Nile Virus and asked AARP to help reach the 50+ population, who are more at-risk for serious effects from the disease. Inoway spent countless hours sewing a mosquito costume that Engelter was somehow persuaded to wear to a West Nile awareness event. Engelter said he went around “stinging” people, but the costume and the workshop got people’s attention.
“Finding community partners is working well for us,” Gonzales said.
Marsh said he’s been amazed at the way AARP collaborates with other organizations around the state, including Wyoming’s 40 senior centers. AARP has helped advocate for more than $10 million in new state funding for Wyoming’s senior centers over the last decade.
“It’s great how much (the senior centers) help us and we help them,” he said.
In 2009, 2010 and 2011, AARP partnered with other nonprofits and businesses, including Habitat for Humanity of Laramie County and Cheyenne Light, Fuel & Power, remember 9/11 with the “Day of Service and Remembrance.” The three events have mobilized hundreds of volunteers in Cheyenne to improve the energy-efficiency and safety of dozens of homes, helping low-income, disabled and elderly residents.
And even before the recent economic downturn, AARP Wyoming has supported the rights of older workers. Events and education have helped employees and employers break down stereotypes of older workers wanting to return to the workforce or stay employed. AARP offered assistance with resume-building and interview skills, helping many find new confidence in their abilities.
Marsh, Engelter and Gonzales have also been pleased by the turnout and interest in AARP Wyoming’s Gray Matters workshops to discuss ways to keep our brains healthy as we age. Almost 1,000 residents have attended at least one of these workshops with more expected in August coinciding with the AARP National Spelling Bee, held each year in Cheyenne.
Gray Matters also was made into a documentary film aired on Wyoming Public Television, followed by a live call-in show with aging and brain health experts. More than 30,000 residents watched, and the call-in show was one of Wyoming PBS’s most successful.
What’s ahead in the next 10 years? Marsh and Engelter cite expanding AARP Wyoming’s role through social media like Facebook and Twitter.
“We need to keep on trucking,” Marsh said – be it a Wyoming highway or the information highway.