SALISBURY — Yvonne Handy of Salisbury was in her 60s when she found herself suddenly unemployed. The company she worked for announced it would close at the end of the day and move its operation across the country.
“I had nowhere else to go,” said Handy, who remained unemployed for nearly a year.
Then she heard about the Senior Community Service Employment Program at MAC Inc., the Area Agency on Aging in Salisbury.
She was accepted into the program and in a very short time, Handy went from using a computer for the first time in her life, to serving as a peer coach, helping other seniors in the program gain computer skills.
Handy, 74, now holds a job at Salisbury University, happily manning an information and reception desk in the Franklin P. Perdue School of Business.
She has a message for area seniors: “Don’t just sit there, get out there. There are things you can do, skills you can learn,” Handy said. “Don’t give up. Please don’t give up.”
The Senior Community Service Employment Program works to connect eligible seniors with service assignments. Eligibility is based on age (55 years or older) and income (at or below poverty level.)
The goals of the employment program are to “build self-esteem and self-sufficiency, to help the older workers live independently and to supplement their income,” said Fran L. Giddins, project director.
Area nonprofit organizations and public agencies can “put a lifetime of experience to work” for them by hiring an older worker.
And “it lets [the seniors] know they are not ‘done,’ they still have a lot to give,” Giddins said.
Interested seniors begin by meeting with Giddins, who assesses the person’s eligibility, skills and interests.
Next, she will look in the community to see which host agencies need help in those particular areas.
The seniors can participate for up to four years, during which their salary is paid by the program. The host agency offers training, agrees to provide a safe environment for the senior, and to consider them for unsubsidized employment when their budget allows.
In July, MAC was awarded a grant of $282,630 from Senior Service America, Inc., which will pay
wages and benefits to the SCSEP participants, who live in Dorchester, Somerset, Wicomico and Worcester counties.
Most participants are in their early to mid-60s; the oldest participant was still working at an area elementary school at age 93 when illness forced her to resign.
Sometimes seniors will look for the same kind of work they performed previously, or may seek employment in a totally different field, Giddins said.
“Many want to try something different,” she said. “Maybe they were working at something they had to do, but now they have a choice and can try something they always thought they’d like to do.”
And because they’re working at something they love to do, the older workers do a really good job, Giddins added. It is a win-win situation.
“It gets them out of the house, gives them new life. They see other resources in the community that are open to them. It is no longer what they are getting, but what they can give to the community,” she said.
Giddens said she understands what many of the seniors are going through.
After years of service at MAC, she retired – but only for two years.
“Retirement was not for me,” Giddins said. “I understand when they say ‘I had to get out of the house.’ This program gives life back to the seniors,” she said.
Louise Pontius, 70, loves her job as a quality assurance specialist at the Bay Area Center for Independent Living in Salisbury.
Financial struggles led her to the senior employment program. She had moved to the shore to be closer to her grandchildren, but was unable to find work.
“I applied and applied and applied. It was very frustrating,” Pontius said. “I was very angry and bitter when I couldn’t find work. I was willing to take any job.”
After about six months in the senior employment program, she landed a job at BACIL in the assistive technology demonstration area.
“What a difference, it has made me a much happier person,” she said. “It is a reason to get out of bed in the morning.”
Pontius recalled one man who came through the doors at BACIL, his Bible under one arm. A stroke had affected his vision and he could not see to read. She set him up at a video magnifier, and he sat there for an hour reading his Bible, tears streaming down his face.
“It is gratifying to do something that makes this world, this life, better,” Pontius said.
National Employ Older Workers Week, which is being celebrated Sept. 21-25, was launched in1958 by the national American Legion organization.
(The writer is a volunteer at MAC, Inc., the Area Agency on Aging.)