‘Retirees’ are busier than ever
As Winston Churchill once said, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” Older adults in Baltimore and beyond are more active than ever, and some are devoting their later years to giving back to their communities.
Studies confirm that Americans over 62 are waiting longer than previous generations to retire. What’s more, many who do retire aren’t doing so in order to slow down; they’re simply leaving their jobs to pursue other passions.
Some even continue to work 40 hours a week at volunteer jobs. That volunteer work is valued at $75 billion, according to the federal Corporation for National and Community Service.
In the Baltimore area, many retired and semi-retired people are volunteering to help others and to improve their communities. Here are a few of their stories.
Retired, but still on the job
By the time many of us retire, we’re ready to pursue something entirely new. That’s not the case for Towson resident Susan Nestler, 73.
After working in banking for 30 years, she left the corporate world six years ago to work as a major gifts officer for a nonprofit. Although she officially retired from that group recently, she continues to work for the organization in a volunteer capacity.
“Last year, I volunteered in the development office three times a week, doing my own job,” Nestler said. “Once you’ve done fundraising, you can’t really escape it. You’re called upon to do it, and you can’t say no. But also, I really enjoy it,” she admitted.
In addition to fundraising, Nestler volunteers for political campaigns, fundraises for other nonprofits she cares about, and helps older residents in her neighborhood by driving them to appointments. In between volunteering gigs, Nestler has time to travel, garden and spend time with family.
“I thought I was just going to keep working,” Nestler said. “But when I turned 70, I realized I’m on the short end. I’m not going to live as long as I have lived already.
“I knew I had a lot of things I wanted to do. I still like doing [the work I used to do], but it’s really nice not having a schedule, not commuting and not having people rely on me in the same way. I’m so thrilled to be retired.”
The dog whisperer
Owings Mills entrepreneur Marty Sitnick, 72, sold his discount travel company in 2010. With more time on his hands, he decided to spend the rest of his life helping pets.
“I always loved animals,” Sitnick said. “My parents always had dogs, and my mother encouraged me to have snakes, hamsters, guinea pigs, lizards…
“When I was 7 or 8, I used to walk home from school and I discovered that if I saved some of my lunch, I could get dogs to follow me home. It drove my parents crazy.”
Sitnick wanted to become a veterinarian, but he became disillusioned during an anatomy class at the University of Maryland, when a teacher provided a live demonstration of a chicken running around with its head cut off.
Instead, Sitnick graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history and went on to own a variety of successful businesses. Yet, caring for pets — his own and other people’s — was never far from his heart.
“I spent as much time as I could reading about animal training, studying techniques and different breeds. I became the kind of person people came to with questions about training their pets,” Sitnick said.
So, when Sitnick retired, he knew exactly what he wanted to do. He developed a business plan to help animal shelters as well as people who adopt animals from rescue shelters.
In the meantime, he volunteered at the Baltimore Humane Society in Reisterstown, becoming a board member and eventually associate executive director, a volunteer position.
In addition to his administrative work, Sitnick provides onsite training at shelters and at adoptive families’ homes or over the phone.
“I’ve been able to leverage myself to help more people. Sometimes I talk to 10 people in a day from all over the country,” he said. His ultimate goal, he said, is “keeping the animal alive and in the home.”
For decades, Dr. Michael Sherlock, 77, a pediatrician who still practices behavioral medicine part-time, has led groups of volunteer landscapers to create green spaces in his Mount Washington neighborhood.
His love of landscaping began at an early age. “My mother was a fantastic gardener,” Sherlock said. “She used to take me and my brothers and parade us around her garden.
“She’d say, ‘Boys, what do you think of the Delphinium tonight?’” he recalled. “At the time, we all could have cared less.”
But when Sherlock and his wife purchased a house in Mount Washington in 1976, he realized he had inherited his mother’s knack for gardening.
When he ran out of projects in his own yard in the early 1980s, Sherlock began noticing “a number of public areas that had nothing growing.” So, he and some gardener friends sought permission to plant on city land.
“We started at Cross Country [Boulevard] and Kelly [Ave.] with half a dozen volunteers and donations from neighbors,” Sherlock said. Subsequently, he read everything he could find on the topic and earned a landscape design certificate.
After Hurricane David decimated a Mount Washington apartment complex in 1989, it was condemned and eventually demolished by Baltimore City. The following year, Sherlock spearheaded his largest landscaping project to date — the creation of a community arboretum on the empty lot at Tanbark Drive.
Today the sustainably designed arboretum, created with funding from the Mount Washington Preservation Trust, the TKF Foundation and other groups, includes more than 300 yards of trails, 300 species of native plants, as well as fish, frogs, insects and birds.
The arboretum also includes a 3,500-gallon pond with a waterfall, a rainwater irrigation system, interpretive signs, an entrance kiosk and a meeting pavilion. Benches placed throughout the arboretum invite visitors to sit, talk or simply commune with nature.
A juggling act
While some people devote themselves to a particular cause, others balance several volunteer positions. Mary Halpin, for instance, another Mount Washington resident, divides her time between a hospital, a nonprofit and a church.
A former human resources professional who had previously considered a career in nursing, Halpin retired 10 years ago, when she was 65.
She took on a weekly shift at Baltimore’s Mercy Hospital in the endoscopy and cystoscopy unit, changing linens, sanitizing stretchers, packaging up gowns and running errands.
“I was drawn to Mercy because all my doctors are there,” she said. “I work with good people. The nurses are wonderful, the patients are grateful and the staff in the volunteer office are also fabulous.
“I love [the job], and I’m sad when I have to miss my shift,” said Halpin, who also helps with Mercy’s annual scrubs sale and blood drives.
When she’s not at the hospital, Halpin serves on the grants committee of the Baltimore Women’s Giving Circle. The group gives grants to projects that “enable and empower women and their families,” Halpin said.
This year, the grants committee reviewed more than 100 applications from local nonprofits and funded 28 projects. Last year it gave away more than $500,000, according to Halpin.
“The circle has funded organizations I never knew existed,” she said. “I love learning about all the things people are doing to help others.”
Halpin’s volunteer efforts don’t end there. She’s also an active volunteer with her church, where she participates in an annual school supply drive, supports efforts to help needy Baltimore City residents at Thanksgiving and Christmastime, and visits patients at Sinai Hospital.
“Sometimes I just ask, ‘What did I do to deserve the life I’ve had?’” Halpin said. “I’m so privileged and blessed throughout my whole life.
“I think it’s very important to give to others. I have the time, I have the health, and I’m comfortable enough that I can do it.”