April 07– Apr. 7–A retired man walks into a nonprofit agency and says:
“I’ve fished every day for seven years, and I think I’m done.”
“You’re done fishing?” asked Beth Patterson, executive director of the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) of Central Oklahoma.
“No,” he said. “I’m not done fishing, but I’m done fishing every day.”
That was Patterson’s bait to “bite” and match the avid fisherman with the right volunteer opportunity in which he could catch a sense of worth and also feed others — whether by providing transportation to medical appointments, tutoring children, sorting donated goods at food pantries, or something else altogether.
Helping seniors has been Patterson’s passion for nearly 37 years now with RSVP, 33 of them as its executive director.
She and her staff of four annually work to connect more than 600 seniors ages 55 and older with 108 local nonprofits — from the Regional Food Bank and Whiz Kids programs to the Veterans Administration Hospital and the Metropolitan Library System. Last year, volunteers contributed 117,483 hours, including providing more than 6,000 rides to 424 low-income elderly persons needing safe and reliable transportation to and from their medical appointments.
“Our volunteers regularly experience a ‘helper’s high’ of renewed energy and exhilaration followed by long-lasting calm and well-being,” Patterson said. “They quickly discover what starts out as ‘something to do’ becomes a fantastic way to live as they serve others.”
“We have retired teachers, nurses, truck drivers, housewives, psychiatrists … you name it,” Patterson said. The typical volunteer contributes 160 hours a year, she said. Some take the winters off.
“In the old days, it wasn’t uncommon for retirees to commit to volunteer as ‘pink ladies’ at hospitals for the rest of their lives,” Patterson said. “But today’s baby boomers prefer short-term opportunities to serve others.”
From her 1,800-square-foot offices at 7401 NE 23, Patterson, 60, sat down with The Oklahoman on Monday to talk about her life and career, including how she developed her love for working with seniors. This is an edited transcript:
Tell us about your roots.
I grew up in Ely, Minnesota (population 4,000), just south of the Canadian border, and am No. 5 of my parents’ 10 children, five daughters and five sons. My dad was an eighth-grade geography teacher and B Squad football coach and worked for an outfitters in the summertime. My mom was a homemaker; she started a daycare after I graduated high school. My mom and dad still live in Ely and are 90 and 88. Some 50 of us gather there every July for a family reunion. We lost my baby brother to cancer when he was 19. My parents established a foundation in his honor and, every summer, we raise college scholarship money, through a silent auction, for kids who exemplify courage as my brother did.
How’d you develop a love to serve others?
My parents encouraged us to give back to our community, and I — along with playing volleyball, basketball and track — started volunteering when I was 12 as a candy striper at our local hospital. I babysat when I was 13 and in high school worked for Kentucky Fried Chicken and as a nurse aide at our local nursing home. I always liked working with older people and the kindnesses they showed me. That’s what led me to study gerontology in college.
What brought you to Oklahoma?
As soon as I graduated college, my boyfriend/now husband and I had planned to drive to Texas to find jobs and a new life in a warmer, dryer climate. Five months of snow every year didn’t feel right to us anymore, if ever. Then, two weeks before graduation, I shockingly learned I had to take summer school to complete my degree; that some early credit hours didn’t transfer. My husband and a friend drove on to Texas without me and — too sleepy to keep driving — stopped for the night in Oklahoma City. When they woke the next morning, they decided to stay here. I moved that September and joined RSVP shortly afterward.
You spearheaded RSVP’s Provide-A-Ride program in 1995. Tell us about it, and how has it grown?
The program ensures that low-income older adults have safe, reliable and free transportation to and from their medical appointments. RSVP volunteer drivers use their own vehicles to provide rides to low-income seniors who can’t drive. Eligible clients are 65 and older, earn less than $32,000 a year and don’t require the use of a wheelchair. Of the 95,000 adults 65 and older in Oklahoma County, 21 percent no longer can drive, and 31 percent live alone. Provide-A-Ride volunteers, if desired, are reimbursed for their mileage and are offered free accidental and liability insurance. Meanwhile, seniors can remain living in their homes and get the health care they need. The program is a godsend for many, including one blind man who needed 36 consecutive weekday doses of chemotherapy and radiation. The Provide-A-Ride program started out with volunteers providing 11 rides a month and, today, provides 500 rides a month. The program director, Faye Beam, has been with us 20 years.
How are you funded?
As a United Way agency, we receive 43 percent of our funding from the United Way. The same federal agency that started the Peace Corps contributes 30 percent. And Oklahoma County Social Services provides our housing, which covers about 8 percent of our annual $400,000 budget. The remainder comes from grants.
You’ve spent your entire 37-year professional career with RSVP. What keeps you here?
I love my seniors, and I love what I do. Every day is different. One day I might be writing a grant and, the following days, meeting and interviewing a new volunteer, planning our April 17 volunteer appreciation luncheon at the fairgrounds, or attending a quarterly meeting with my peers. RSVP is part of a national organization, which was started 46 years ago. There are 14 other RSVPs statewide.
Position: RSVP of Central Oklahoma, executive director.
Grew up in: Ely, Minnesota.
Education: Minnesota State University-Mankato, bachelor’s in open studies with concentrations in gerontology, social services and human relations; and University of Minnesota-Crookston, associate degree in services for the aged and family services
Family: Kelly, fourth-grade teacher in Choctaw and husband of 32 years; and sons Erik, 27, of Norman; Luke, 25, of Edmond; and Jake, 23, of Midwest City.
Pets: “Brandy,” a German shepherd/black Labrador rescue, and “Herman,” her 2-year-old Beta fish, who stays at the office.
Community involvement: Oklahoma Senior Corps Directors Association, secretary/treasurer; United Way Agency Directors Association, secretary; Midwest City Lions Club; Meta Fund Advisory Board; Catholic Daughters; and Relay for Life.
Worship: St. Teresa of Avila in Harrah.
Pastimes: gardening, planting, long walks, boating and fishing. She and her husband every summer catch and donate fish for the Hooks, Oars & S’mores, which introduces blind adults and children to a day of fishing, boating, eating fresh fish and making s’mores.
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