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How do I volunteer my retirement years so I truly make a difference? Add to ...

The question

I’m on the verge of retirement and eager to use the freedom to volunteer my time for a good cause. How do I find an organization where I can truly contribute?

The answer

Happy National Volunteer Week!

Volunteering in retirement has an amazing mutual benefit: The organization receives free contributions from someone with a lifetime of experience and wisdom, while retirees get a positive transition from their paid working careers. There’s also intellectual stimulation (beyond Sudoku puzzles), connection to social networks (so you don’t drive your family crazy with all that time on your hands), enhanced health and quality of life (when not travelling to all those exotic destinations), and a sense of purpose (aside from getting your golf handicap down).

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Neena Chappell, former director of the Centre on Aging at the University of Victoria, has found that retirees who give their time to volunteer activity, “especially if it involves helping others, are happier and healthier in their later years.”

Yet, Statistics Canada’s 2007 Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participating found that, while seniors contribute the most average volunteer hours of any age group (more than 200 a year), only 36 per cent of seniors volunteer, compared to almost 50 per cent of other Canadians. Like other Canadians, retirees’ most frequently cited reason for not volunteering is because they haven’t been asked – but it’s also likely because they aren’t sure where to best use their skills and experience.

At any age, volunteering means being willing to do whatever is needed, but if the traditional senior’s volunteer role in a hospital or at church doesn’t use the full scope of what you can contribute, consider applying your professional background to your “encore career.”

Besides the staggering number and range of organizations with names ending in “Without Borders” (including architects, firefighters, and even clowns), many non-profits are craving expertise in marketing, accounting, management, communications or other trades. For example, we know a recently retired roofing inspector who now volunteers at one of Habitat for Humanity’s ReStores.

Or you can dive into that hobby you’ve never had enough time for, like a friend of ours who just left his career as a privacy consultant to devote more time to his passion for woodworking. His local food bank was desperate for new storage space but couldn’t afford it, so now he’s building cupboards and shelving units for them at cost, in addition to fun home reno side projects for neighbours and friends.

Think of the things you loved most about your professional career, and find a way to continue doing them – we have a retired school principal on our board of directors who is especially gifted at relating to students, and now he mentors all of our incoming staff and youth board members.

The hardest part is getting started with your search. Begin with your passion. Ask yourself what local organizations you want to help, then ask what they need, and tell them what you can do. You may not get a perfect match the first few tries, but keep asking around and making it known in your community that you have skills to offer.

Volunteer Canada ( Volunteer.ca) has a great online guide to volunteering in retirement called “A Booming Trend,” with advice on choosing and securing a volunteer position. They also work with volunteer centres across Canada and have a website ( Getvoluntering.ca; 613-231-4371 or 800-670-0401) that matches your experience and skills with an organization in need.

The Canadian Association for Retired People ( Carp.ca; 1-888-363-2279) also has an online directory of organizations looking specifically for older and retired volunteers, as well as local chapters across Canada.

There’s a lot of talk about how much Canada’s 4.3 million seniors have contributed to building our great country. We agree, but we also know that many Canadian retirees are just getting started.

Craig and Marc Kielburger co-founded Free the Children. Follow Craig at facebook.com/craigkielburger and @craigkielburger on Twitter. Send questions to Livebetter@globeandmail.com.

Follow us on Twitter: @globeandmail

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