When Teddy Kennedy was a Massachusetts sixth-grader, he ate lunch every Sunday with his grandfather, John F. “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald. A gifted communicator, former Boston mayor Honey Fitz would talk with people from all walks of life – from kitchen staffers to city politicians – asking about their children, their illnesses, their problems, their joys.
Although he was born into prestige and privilege, those lunches helped shape Senator Edward M. Kennedy into a champion of the poor and the less fortunate. Where did Kennedy’s drive to help others originate? “Initially, I got a good dose of it from my grandfather,” he would tell biographer Adam Clymer, “from a person who was not preaching.” Action, not words, taught Teddy the importance of service.
Senator Kennedy was not alone. Many of us learn the value of giving back to the community by observing family members or other older role models: mentors, friends or neighbors who connect across the years and share their wisdom and experience. Many in our country’s highest offices – including President Obama – were taught devotion to service at a grandparent’s knee.
That commitment is growing among older adults. In 2009, 19 million Americans age 55 and older volunteered in their communities, according to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics data. That’s more than one in four, and up from 18.2 million in 2008. Those older adults volunteered, on average, 75 hours a year. The hours add up – according to the Corporation for National and Community Service, total volunteer hours contributed in 2008 were worth an estimated $162 billion.
These tangible benefits – accompanied by the intangible, long-term benefits of dedication and bonding – not only mold character, they mold a nation. A nation made of people like grandfather-and-grandson pair Ray Luyet and Quinn Hulsizer of Swiftwater, Penn., who volunteer together at their local Retired & Senior Volunteer Program in Monroe County, serving lunch and cleaning facilities for seniors and helping a physically challenged woman with errands. Or Mary Jane Stredde, 75, of Bethesda, Minn., who is known as ‘Grandma’ at the Head Start preschool where she volunteers several times a week. The benefits go both ways: The Dolby brothers – Ryan, 17, Austin, 15, and Connor, 13, are surrounded by a crowd of attentive, caring older adults on their regular visits to a Jacksonville, Fla assisted-living home. They teach Wii gaming skills – and learn patience, appreciation and respect.
This week we honor Senator Kennedy and his legacy of service in marking the one-year anniversary of the Kennedy Serve America Act, a landmark law that aims to bring opportunities for service into every home, to every American. The Serve America Act boosts volunteer efforts for all ages, strengthening service learning programs across the country and highlighting the contributions of older Americans.
One year ago, this legislative tribute to Senator Kennedy began to strengthen existing service programs and increase opportunities for intergenerational service in America. It expands AmeriCorps from 75,000 positions to 250,000 over five years, with ten percent of those spots saved for adults 55 and older. It creates a new Silver Scholarship Grant Program for older volunteers, rewarding them with scholarships that can be transferred to children or grandchildren. And it designates September 11 as the National Day of Service and Remembrance, calling on Americans to turn a memorial day into an opportunity for intergenerational service.
Senator Edward M. Kennedy envisioned an America in which strong communities are built by the collective contributions of individuals. He also recognized the value of connections across the generations – that a grandfather’s lessons, silently delivered, could show a young boy that wealth or good fortune didn’t mean ignoring the dispossessed. Kennedy’s message continues to ring true, as new generations of youth connect across the lifespan with older adults. As we observe National Volunteer Week from April 18 – 24 and the anniversary of the Serve America Act, let us honor the contributions of grandparents and older adults everywhere – and carry on Senator Kennedy’s legacy of service.