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John Fanning retired from his high-school teaching job at 57 but has found his skills useful in his volunteer work at a YMCA in Toronto helping refugees and immigrants overcome language barriers.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Retirement can bring a great sigh of relief for people who have long toiled in the working world. No more 9-to-5 (or 9-to-9). No more suits. No more commute. But once a person is rested up, the closets are cleaned, the boat painted or the garden trimmed, there's often the question: "What now?"

For retirees such as John Fanning, and many others like him, the answer was found in volunteering.

Mr. Fanning, who retired at 57 from teaching high-school English in Toronto, kept busy for years with family and hobbies, such as long-distance bike riding. But about 10 years ago he wanted more and started volunteering at the newcomer centre at the YMCA of Greater Toronto, where he helps refugees and immigrants with language skills they need to land jobs.

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"It's really satisfying to be able to help these people get a foot in the door," says Mr. Fanning, now 75. "They are almost always well-educated, but often language is a barrier."

He's at the Y on Grosvenor Street one day a week for three or four hours, usually working with people one-on-one for about an hour each. He loves putting his language skills to use and the volunteer job jibes with his interest in travel literature.

"It's a bit like being an armchair traveller," he says. "I get to meet all these really interesting people from all parts of the globe and learn about foreign cultures."

Memorable examples are a Peruvian engineer, a Venezuelan journalist and a Chinese financial professional. The hardest part of the job is seeing how tough it can be for people to find good jobs in this sluggish economy.

"Sometimes it's very frustrating for people because they've made the effort to upgrade their skills, but there might not be jobs in the field, so they'll have to settle for something that's pretty low-level," he says. But he's reminded of the importance of his work each time he receives an e-mail from someone telling him that they have landed a good job.

Joyce Sikora headed right back to the Cross Cancer Institute in Edmonton as a volunteer after retiring six years ago from a decade of paid work there as a volunteer co-ordinator.

"I really enjoyed my job there, but I didn't want the commitment of going in for five days," says Ms. Sikora, 67. "Volunteering is close to my heart. It's a way to be helpful to a lot of people while staying connected to the people I worked with."

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About 500 volunteers help out at the institute, which is engaged in cancer research and treatment. In her paid job, Ms. Sikora was responsible for between 100 and 150 people who staffed a small coffee shop, made the rounds with tea and cookies in waiting areas and drove a shuttle van from local hotels for out-of-towners. Now she volunteers in the gift shop for a full shift on Tuesdays, at the information centre for two four-hour shifts a month, and serves on the board of directors, as well as various committees.

A teacher by training, she taught Grade 1 and Grade 2 and then raised a family, while doing some volunteer work in schools.

She has seen the volunteer world change somewhat over the years, as more people have postsecondary education and women are spending more time in the work force.

"Some people want to use their brain a little bit more, use their skills. Before, it seemed like people just wanted to volunteer. Now you have to find more of a match for people." Another change is that more people – including Ms. Sikora – go away for all or part of the winter, which sometimes makes scheduling a challenge.

But one thing that seems to stay the same, volunteers say, is that unpaid work is mutually beneficial to the giver and receiver.

"It's very rewarding for the volunteer and for the people who are in need of a little extra help," says 71-year-old Judy Crouch, last year's Volunteer of the Year at the Daily Bread Food Bank in Toronto. "I think it's terribly important for those of us who are able to volunteer to do so."

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Ms. Crouch, who lives in Mississauga, retired at 62 after working as a medical secretary at Sunnybrook Hospital for 33 years and also volunteered at the Toronto Distress Centre and at her daughter's school. "Some of us are privileged to have three meals a day and not think about it, so I thought why not help others in whatever way we can."

She started working three days a week as a receptionist at the food bank's main distribution centre on New Toronto Street, and has now cut down to one day a week, as well as filling in where needed.

In her job, she is often the first voice someone hears when they are in need.

"You feel for these people," she says. "Many of them are embarrassed to have to call and some of them are crying. And it's because of circumstances. They might well be working three jobs but simply can't make ends meet. I tell them they're no different than anybody else and we have all had difficult times and not to feel ashamed or embarrassed."

Ms. Crouch then directs callers to the two nearest centres in the city. She sometimes also sends callers to people who can help with other things, such as legal and financial issues or obtaining a mattress or clothing.

One frustration is that she must sometimes disappoint callers when there is not enough of certain items. Milk goes very quickly, for instance, and the Food Bank often does not have a specific type of food.

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"I am amazed at the diversity of the people who access the food bank," she says. "It runs the spectrum from late teens to people my age. People from all over the world who are now in Toronto access us. It's terribly sad in a city like we have that we have to have a facility like this, but thank God we do."

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