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VISTA volunteer tackles poverty among seniors

by: PHOTO: MERRY MACKINNON - Despite earning a Ph.D in urban studies, Marianne Ryder still had trouble starting her career. Having recently become a VISTA volunteer with AARP Oregon, her hope is that her current role in organizing groups around the issue of food insecurity will lead to full-time employment in her field.

In her former career as a technical writer, Marianne Ryder’s earnings got slammed twice by downturns in the economy, first by the 2001 dot.com bust and then by the 2008 recession.

“There wasn’t a whole lot of work for technical writers,” recalled Ryder, now 56.

So, like many other unemployed and underemployed older workers, Ryder returned to school, where she earned a Ph.D in urban studies from Portland State University. But even with those credentials, she still had trouble finding work. And cobbling together employment as a temporary worker and an adjunct teacher at PSU was not leading anywhere, so Ryder set out on a better strategy to jump-start her career.

She became a VISTA volunteer.

Due to her age, Ryder was hesitant at first to apply for the federally-funded program, sometimes described as a domestic Peace Corps.

“But since I joined VISTA I have seen quite a few people my age and older who are also VISTA volunteers,” she said.

In the past 14 months, 25 applicants over 50 years old applied for VISTA volunteer positions in Oregon. Currently, 84 VISTA members of various ages are serving in Oregon. Five of the more than 50 applicants were selected and served at a project, said Teresa O’Halloran, Oregon state office program specialist with the Corporation for National and Community Service.

“In that past year the oldest member was 66,” O’Halloran said.

As a VISTA member, Ryder receives a monthly stipend of $900 and, then after a year of service, an additional cash payment or educational award to cover higher education classes or to pay off student loans.

Occasionally, VISTA volunteers are offered permanent positions in the organizations where they’ve been assigned. Ryder’s hope is that her VISTA experience will lead to employment in nonprofit and community development work.

“I have recommended VISTA to my friends,” Ryder said. “You get to contribute and have a powerful role in alleviating poverty.”

Her VISTA assignment, which began in late November, involves a year or possibly two-year commitment to AARP Oregon, where Ryder is helping to address poverty among older adults. Her task is to build capacity between organizations, such as the Oregon Food Bank, Meals On Wheels and Partners For a Hunger Free Oregon, while bringing attention to the problem of food insecurity and increasing access to food resources for older Oregonians.

On the national level, AARP also is raising awareness about food insecurity in connection with the issue of 50- to 59-year-old unemployed boomers. According to an article posted on AARP’s website (www.aarp.org/aarp-foundation/our-work/hunger/learn-about-hunger), in the past four years the unemployment rate for seniors 50 and older has doubled. And, between 2007 and 2009, the number of Americans 50 to 59 years old at risk of hunger increased by 40 percent.

“For all the attention on the severe economic downturn that hit our country, we don’t always appreciate how tough conditions have been for older workers,” the article said.

Yet many don’t take advantage of the safety net that does exist for those in their 50s, Ryder said.

“People in that age group may not realize that they are eligible for food stamps,” she said. “They may think because they own a home they don’t qualify, or they may be embarrassed to ask for help.”