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When older professionals aren't ready to hang it up

By: Ana Veciana-Suarez

When Clarita Perez de Alejo retired four years ago from the corporate world, she traveled extensively and spent time with her grandchildren.

"I kept thinking, 'What else can I do?'" she said. "I felt I had a lot to contribute. I still wanted to help out."

In November, Perez de Alejo, 66, found a place where she can use a lifetime's worth of skills. Through staffing organization ReServe, which pairs older executives and professionals with nonprofits, government agencies and public institutions, she began working at a West Kendall, Fla., high school, helping college adviser Maria Mendoza prepare more than 750 seniors for the college application season.

Perez de Alejo's duties are varied, from answering students' questions to organizing the college fair, and she loves it. "I already feel like I belong here," she said.

Mendoza said the feeling is mutual: "She's been such an amazing help. Having her here frees me up to do what I need to do: provide services to the students."

Perez de Alejo is one of 25 ReServists who have gone through three days of training for their post-retirement jobs. Sixteen are college mentors in Florida's Miami-Dade County Public Schools and eight are slotted to work in adult education, teaching everything from literacy to computer skills and resume writing. One works at Catalyst Miami, the community organization that brought ReServe south from New York.

Though the ReServists are finding their way around new jobs, students and advisers say they provide more than a second set of hands. Their presence gives students a perspective on the real workaday world.

"A lot of kids want to go into business, and now there's someone here who had her own business," said Nichole Rodriguez, an 18-year-old senior.

Added Estafania Chavez, also a senior, "She can give us a perspective about what comes after college."

The ReServists range from 55 (the minimum age) to 82. Their work experiences are varied: One owned a business, another was a college executive. All want to stay active.

"The majority are not satisfied with traditional volunteering," said Dacia Steiner, ReServe Miami's program director. "They don't want to lick envelopes and make cold calls, but they miss the camaraderie of a workplace."

By placing them in part-time jobs that can use their expertise, ReServe gives them "an opportunity to go out there again and get engaged," Steiner said.

Unlike other organizations that offer retirees volunteer positions, ReServe jobs pay $10 an hour, not a lot compared with pre-retirement salaries, but ReServists aren't in it for the money.

"I was bored silly," said John Dubey, a retired executive about why he works as a ReServist.

Dubey, 71, attended an information session sponsored by ReServe. "I thought it sounded terrific," he added. "It was what I was looking for."

Like Perez de Alejo, Dubey helps out a college adviser — Ana Ros at a Miami high school. He has pitched in with the scholarship bulletin, organized the community hours requirement for students and registered seniors and juniors for the ACT.

"The way I look at is that I'm here to assist the (college) adviser in whatever way she needs," he said. "I'm not a manager but an appendage."

To which Ros added: "He's more than an appendage. He's such a big help to us."

ReServe was founded in New York in 2005. Since then the group has placed more than 1,900 people into part-time jobs and is about to expand to Baltimore and is working with groups in Chicago, Milwaukee and elsewhere.

Miami community activist and arts patron Deborah Hoffman read about the group and flew to New York to find out more. With the help of Ann Machado, president of Creative Staffing, and Daniella Levine, president and chief executive of Catalyst Miami, they formed an advisory council to study bringing the concept south. To Catalyst Miami, the program met a community need: engaging older adults in meaningful services that strengthen the community.

The program, Steiner said, comes at a critical time. The leading edge of the baby boom generation, 81 million strong, began turning 65 last year. And many will retire with the hope of finding part-time positions that use their experience.

"We have a surplus of highly qualified, talented retirees and older workers looking to use their skills," Steiner said.

Earlier this year, ReServe received a grant from AmeriCorps to cover 30 percent of its operating budget. It then secured matching funds from the Knight Foundation, the Miami Foundation, American Express, the Kennedy Family Foundation and Miami-Dade's public schools.

The ReServists working in public schools will be there until the end of the school year and likely return if funding is renewed.

Dubey likes that idea. "It's keeping me alive, in the spiritual sense. This is a real job. It's not a make-work job."


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