How to Choose the Best Volunteering Option

No matter how much time you can spare or what stage of life you're in, choices abound.

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The largest network for people 55 and older is Senior Corps, which links more than 500,000 individuals to service opportunities in its three programs. The biggest of these, the Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP), has members helping some 60,000 local organizations tutoring and mentoring children, assisting victims of natural disasters, improving the environment, and conducting safety patrols. They also provide business and technical support to nonprofits, including accounting, IT, and fundraising expertise.

Gary LaGrange, a retired Army colonel in Manhattan, Kan., wanted to expand his nonprofit, Help us Learn … Give us Hope. The group collects and ships school supplies and books to children in war-torn nations. RSVP assigned "at least 100 volunteers" and, because of this, more than 400,000 kids have received 520,000 pounds of supplies and 550,000 books, he says.

Senior Corps also offers two other programs: Senior Companions help the elderly maintain independence by assisting them with daily tasks; and Foster Grandparents mentor and tutor children. For other "second act" opportunities, you can try AARP's Create the Good network or its other programs.

An Extended commitment

Got more time? Two full-time gigs to consider include the storied Peace Corps for international posts or the fast-growing AmeriCorps program to serve domestically.

Established under President John F. Kennedy in 1961 to promote goodwill, the Peace Corps has over the years sent nearly 200,000 Americans (who receive three months of training) to serve in 139 countries, from agribusiness workers in Malawi to engineers in Mexico. (Good news for liberal arts grads: Teaching English is in high demand in many parts of the world.) Jennifer Bailey, 29, worked on educational programs in the Dominican Republic, finishing her two-year hitch in May. "I received a world of education and professional work experience with Peace Corps," says Bailey, originally from Ohio, whose tasks ranged from teaching youths about trash management and river cleanup to helping women start income-generating projects. Bailey landed a position as a program analyst in September with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Besides gaining invaluable skills and fluency in foreign languages, Peace Corps volunteers get other perks, including medical and dental benefits, living allowances, student loan help, vacation time, and job placement support. (Check the Web site of the International Volunteer Programs Association for other opportunities to serve abroad.)

If you'd prefer a long-term assignment stateside, you might consider AmeriCorps, which uses volunteers to help address critical needs in education, public safety, health, and the environment. A variety of positions are available, from tutoring young people, assisting crime victims, and building homes to teaching computer skills, restoring parks, and responding to disasters. AmeriCorps plans to expand its ranks from 85,000 volunteers today to 250,000 by 2017.

In general, volunteers sign on for at least a year and can stay on longer if they desire. Dwight Owens, 28, of Collins, Miss., provided practical advice to more than 1,200 people with disabilities on how to manage daily tasks. He also checked that businesses in his area complied with federal laws regarding handicapped access, and helped transition people from nursing facilities and other institutions to their homes. "The program builds character," says Owens, who does all his work from a wheelchair. The former teacher and coach was paralyzed when he was hit by a drunk driver five years ago. The AmeriCorps application process took only a couple of weeks, and while there was some upfront training, Owens was impressed how quickly the program got him out "doing things for people."

Other AmeriCorps avenues include the National Civilian Community Corps, a full-time, team-based residential program for young adults, and AmeriCorps VISTA, focused on helping people out of poverty. All AmeriCorps participants get a modest living allowance, a $5,350 education award to pay for college-related costs (after completing the program), and student loan assistance. While young adults fill most of the ranks, 10 percent of volunteers are 55 or older. (Older adults can transfer their education award to a grandchild or others.) There are three applicants for every position, but you can boost your chances by applying to multiple programs (up to 10) and to rural postings, where there are heavy needs but fewer applicants. Information on all AmeriCorps programs can be found through the organization's main Web site.