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Aging & Society

This Committed Volunteer Wants More Seniors & Latinos to Join Her

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Carmen Matias likes to paraphrase a quote from Winston Churchill: “You make your living by what you do; you make a life by what you give.”

She has made her living, first, as a television producer and later in life as a communications manager for the New York City Housing Authority. Today, at 72, Matias works part time as a community liaison for an educational institute that serves children and young adults with special needs. 

Many more hours of her week are devoted to various volunteer activities. On any given day you might find Matias tutoring schoolchildren in Harlem, attending a meeting of the advisory board for the local senior center, working the registration desk for their community events or distributing theater tickets that Broadway or Off-Broadway houses have donated. Sometimes she’ll get a call from the center or her church that a senior needs an escort home from the doctor’s office after cataract surgery. “I’m an integral part of the community,” she says. “We help one another out.”

She is active in the arts as well, as a “greeter” and ambassador for New York’s High Line, the public park built on a historic freight rail line elevated above the streets of the West Side of Manhattan. As a “neighborhood buddy,” she was once interviewed by young students at the local public school about life in the neighborhood before the High Line. 

“I get joy and enormous satisfaction from the volunteer work I do,” Matias says. “It feels good, like dipping into a cool river on a day when the temperature is 110 degrees. That’s how I feel, completely refreshed.” 

Matias wants others, especially her contemporaries, to experience this joy. She’s an impassioned advocate of broadening volunteer opportunities for seniors. “We’re fierce, we’re informed and we have time,” she says. “Seniors are an underused resource.”

Last October, Matias volunteered to greet and direct guests attending performances of the Mile-Long Opera at the High Line.  For six nights, a cast of 1,000 singers came together to perform an original opera across the nearly 1.5 mile length of the park. Matias made her own appointment to attend a performance and she also dropped in on rehearsals. “You can’t talk about what you haven’t seen,” she says of that insider perk. 

 It was a thrilling experience, marred only by Matias’s disappointment that she didn’t see any other over-60 volunteers. That’s unlikely to happen again: Matias has been talking to the Friends of the High Line team on how to recruit more senior volunteers as docents, greeters and photographers when events resume in the spring.

Outreach, she believes, is the key to engaging seniors.  “I think representatives from nonprofit groups should be going to senior centers and sharing a presentation that explains what volunteering is, what’s needed and how welcome they would be.”

All it takes, she says, is calling these senior centers and asking “can we bring some coffee and donuts and stop by?” She repeats that last point, with a laugh. “You can’t have an event without coffee and donuts.”

 As someone who came to New York from Puerto Rico with her family when she was nine months old, Matias would also like to see more Latinos develop a sense of activism and volunteerism. “Latinos, especially older Latinos, often feel marginalized,” she says, “and they’re sometimes seen as having limited information. What I’d say to Latinos is that volunteering is a way of sharing your culture, and letting people know who you are and what you have to offer.”

“I try to lead by example,” she says. “If it’s licking envelopes, answering phones, or stuffing bags, and you need help, I’m there.”  Matias adds that no matter how you volunteer, it’s a great way to meet people, engage in interesting conversations, which can be especially valuable to people who might not otherwise be comfortable meeting new people

“I’ve been given so much and had such a fortunate life,” she continues, “I have a need to give back.”

To explore volunteer opportunities near you, check out these two resources: Volunteer Match and Create the Good. Or, take a cue in being bold from Matias. “Figure out what it is that interests you and go for it,” she says. “If it’s reading to schoolchildren – walk down the street to your local public school, introduce yourself and say you’d like to come in twice a week to spend a couple of hours reading to kids. Create your own opportunities.”

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