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Pilot program builds corps of 'green retirees' to serve as environmental stewards

Take a burgeoning cohort of retirees with time who want to be useful and a host of pressing environmental problems. Add a dash of training and support. The result: an environmental volunteer corps of retirees with the skills critically needed to tackle environmental threats.

Two Cornell researchers are doing just that -- training the first group of retiree volunteers to be environmental stewards -- in a pilot program this fall.

"It's rare that one gets an opportunity to solve two problems at the same time," says Karl Pillemer, professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology and director of the Cornell Institute for Translational Research on Aging. "Here we have retirees looking for meaningful opportunities for engagement, and environmental organizations are hungry for trained, motivated volunteers. By putting them together, we believe there is a huge potential to both benefit older persons and to promote environmental sustainability."

In the 10-week Retiree Environmental Volunteerism and Civic Engagement program, conducted with Linda P. Wagenet, a senior extension associate in development sociology at Cornell, 17 retirees have been attending three-hour weekly training sessions in Ithaca. They are learning about such topics as air pollution and climate change; water and watersheds; conflict and communication; waste and recycling; and storm water management.

In addition to classroom sessions, they have, for example, learned about lake issues by attending the "Floating Classroom" and touring the Lake Source Cooling facility; learned about energy while visiting a home in Berkshire, N.Y., that is "off the grid"; about waste and recycling while visiting the Cornell composting facility; and about stream ecology from Tom Vawter, professor of biology at Wells College, who presented a program complete with microscopes and "critters."

Each field trip is coupled with a lecture from a local expert, including speakers from Cornell, other local colleges, and the city and town of Ithaca. With their new training, the group, which "ranges from retired engineers, to teachers to small business owners, all of whom want to leave a better world for their grandchildren,' will soon decide upon a local environmental project to start tackling early next year, says Wagenet.

"This is a wonderful opportunity to discover what is happening environmentally in Ithaca and become involved as a group in order to make a difference in our own community," says project participant Susan Eyster.

"The course has been a traverse through a wide range of environmental issues presented in an exquisitely prepared format," adds Lyle Raymond, a retired Cornell employee. "The class has been introduced to a variety of experienced people in their fields with hands-on involvement as part of the instructional presentations."

Pillemer, who earlier this year published with Wagenet a "call to action" in the Public Policy and Aging Report (18:2) to recruit retirees for environmental volunteerism, said the program not only helps keep the volunteers physically active and engaged in their community -- which have been shown to contribute to better mental and physical health -- but also fills a critical need to recruit more people to work on such issues as conservation, sustainability and pro-environmental attitudes or activism.

The researchers are conducting a detailed evaluation of the program and plan to expand the training model statewide and, ultimately, nationally.

This research was supported in part by the Cornell Agricultural Experiment Station, U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Institute on Aging.