Volunteering is a rewarding way of life for area seniors, retirees

Jan. 12—Helping others runs in the family for twin sisters Martha Koval of Delmont and Jane Szczygiel of Hempfield.

Volunteerism was instilled by their parents, Mary and George Zimmerman, as they were growing up in Delmont. It's how they've continued to direct their talents now that they've reached their golden years, at 74.

"When I retired, I got a great gift: the gift of spare time," said Szczygiel, who retired as an operating room nurse until 2008. "That's not the kind of gift we should keep for ourselves. I think we're meant to use it to help others.

"It's good to feel useful and help somebody out."

Performing services for others can provide physical and emotional benefits for volunteers, especially for seniors. A report released in 2019 by the federal Corporation for National and Community Service, also known as AmeriCorps, provides evidence that consistent volunteering can improve the health and well-being of people age 55 and older.

The national study of 1,200 participants in two Senior Corps volunteer programs found that 84% reported improved or stable health after two years of service. Of volunteers who initially reported a lack of companionship, 88% cited a decrease in feelings of isolation after two years.

Learning by example

Koval volunteers at Greensburg's Palace Theatre, the Westmoreland County Food Bank and Delmont's Salem Lutheran Church. Szczygiel coordinates volunteers for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Greensburg.

The sisters' parents were active with the Salvation Army in Delmont, sometimes ringing a bell during the holidays. Their father assisted with a Salvation Army canteen, providing support to first responders at fires. The Zimmermans also delivered food to Delmont-area Meals on Wheels recipients.

"My mother had a route well into her 80s," Koval said. "My dad would drive her around."

Szczygiel learned about Catholic Charities during her previous volunteer work as a lay Eucharistic minister at Westmoreland Hospital.

"I had a chance encounter with a patient at the hospital where I was delivering Communion," she said. "He told me about Catholic Charities. It was fate, almost.

"I retired in September 2008 and started volunteering in November."

Scheduled for a weekly night shift, Szczygiel is among those who monitor the organization's 24-hour help line.

Catholic Charities fields emergency requests for material needs — such as food, utility service and baby items — and also offers access to counseling services.

Koval has cooked and packaged meals for delivery to recipients through Meals on Wheels programs based in Delmont and in Southwest Greensburg.

"I would make the food and pray over it and hope that it would nourish their bodies," she said.

The pandemic prompted Koval to retire from Meals on Wheels, but she continues to volunteer for other programs.

"If you quit, you're done," she said. "I go slower, but I still get things done."

Koval is in her seventh year serving as an usher during select shows at the Palace Theatre. She also reports periodically to the Westmoreland County Food Bank, assembling boxes of food for distribution.

Those opportunities were arranged through the Retired & Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP), an AmeriCorps Seniors program for those 55 or older that is based at Westmoreland County Community College near Youngwood.

About eight years ago, Koval saw an advertisement for RSVP, interviewed with the program's former coordinator and was able to select opportunities that matched her interests and abilities.

Koval noted the Palace usher duties come with an added benefit. Volunteers can request what dates they want to work and are able to stay to enjoy the show after patrons are seated.

"I prefer the shows that aren't hard rock," said Koval. "It's a nice advantage. I've seen many shows I would not have been able to see otherwise."

'Keep the change'

Derry Township residents Carol and George Bebin have been volunteering at Latrobe's St. Vincent de Paul thrift store since the 1980s.

The store is operated by six conferences, each using a share of proceeds from store sales.

"In a year, we help hundreds of people, maybe close to a thousand, in all six conferences," said George Bebin.

That includes residents of the Unity village of Dorothy, where homes were damaged by flooding in August 2022. The Latrobe thrift store spent thousands of dollars on replacement appliances for the flood victims, according to Carol Bebin.

Carol Bebin, 77, is president of the conference centered on St. Rose Catholic Church in the Mechesneytown section of Derry Township. She fields requests for assistance and leads a group from the conference who operate the thrift store on Tuesdays. She also is the overall manager of the store.

"It makes you feel good to realize that you're helping people. Most are so appreciative. You'll have people who you know don't have two pennies to rub together say, 'Keep the change,' " she said.

George Bebin, 79, works behind the scenes, taking in donated items and sometimes hauling larger items to the store.

He retired from the Latrobe police force in 1994, with 27 years of service, and has held down numerous jobs since then — including working in security, food and floral delivery and, most recently, Walmart store maintenance.

He isn't ready to give up working part-time for a paycheck, but he said his volunteer work provides another level of satisfaction —a labor of love for a good cause with like-minded people.

"It's good to go down to the (thrift) store," he said. "I enjoy the camaraderie. We're all friends."

Faith in action

Retired from the education field, 84-year-old Unity resident Harrie Caldwell has kept busy as a volunteer.

Drawing upon his math skills, he put in many hours over 15 years, helping older clients with their income tax returns as part of an AARP program.

He also is one of about 300 volunteers with Laurel Area Faith In Action, a Latrobe-based nonprofit that offers free services to those age 60 or older in the Latrobe, Derry and Ligonier areas.

Caldwell helps during a monthly food bank program in Latrobe, delivering boxes of food to senior recipients who are unable to get to the distribution site.

"People appreciate it," he said of the delivery service. "They think I work real hard, and it's really not hard."

Laurel Faith In Action volunteers this year crafted more than 600 tote bags and filled them with gifts for residents of area nursing homes.

"We want to make sure people are not forgotten at the holiday season," said Amy McLendon, executive director of the nonprofit.

The area's aging demographics are affecting both the client and volunteer bases for the organization.

"With the Baby Boomers aging into our service age, we see an uptick in the number of calls that we're getting for all kinds of different services we provide," said McLendon. "At the same time, we're finding that our volunteers who have been with us are aging up and becoming recipients. We need to make sure we have the people and the resources so we can continue to provide these services."

'We're still here'

During the past year, 510 participants have been engaged in volunteer work through the RSVP program at WCCC, according to current coordinator Rebecca Dunn. Once applicants are accepted into the program, they are covered by accident and injury insurance while pursuing their volunteer work.

There are 40 sites throughout Westmoreland County where RSVP volunteers are at work, but Dunn noted many more have signed on as potential placements for senior volunteers.

"If you can name a nonprofit, we probably have an agreement with them," she said. "The range covers everything from senior centers to libraries and museums."

In the wake of the pandemic and a delay in the leadership transition following the previous coordinator's retirement, the local RSVP program is suffering from a low profile.

"We want to get the word out that we're still here," said Dunn. "We didn't go away."

Jeff Himler is a TribLive reporter covering Greater Latrobe, Ligonier Valley, Mt. Pleasant Area and Derry Area school districts and their communities. He also reports on transportation issues. . A journalist for more than three decades, he enjoys delving into local history. He can be reached at jhimler@triblive.com.