Seniors serving the community

Contest nominees

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  • | 9:15 a.m. February 29, 2012
Photo by: Isaac Babcock - Karen Smedley has made a career out of volunteering.
Photo by: Isaac Babcock - Karen Smedley has made a career out of volunteering.
  • Winter Park - Maitland Observer
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To nominate your favorite senior volunteer for the Salute to Senior Service program, visit The deadline for entries is March 15.

If you’re a senior looking to volunteer, visit or call 407-422-1535.

Karen Smedley isn’t a teacher in the traditional sense. She doesn’t have a classroom full of kids raising their arms high in the air for a chance to answer a question, she doesn’t line them up to go to lunch or write on a chalkboard. But she does teach children — as a volunteer.

Smedley is a senior who has always followed a passion for teaching without the pay. She’s one nominee for Home Instead Senior Care’s Salute to Senior Service program. The company is recognizing outstanding senior volunteers from all over the country who they call Senior Heroes. A few national winners will be selected to have $5,000 donated to their charity of choice.

Pursuing another passion

Smedley has volunteered for what seems like forever, she said. While she said she loves her job helping others as a home health aide for Home Instead Senior Care in the Winter Park and Maitland area, volunteering has given her an opportunity to pursue a passion outside that.

As soon as her children were old enough to participate in school and Girl and Boy Scouts, she and her husband stepped up to the plate to lead them through. She made costumes for her daughter’s high school drama program while she was in school, and is still on call years later when they need a particularly difficult costume to find. Her specialty has been making dresses for 6-foot-tall high school boys, she said with a laugh. She’s also volunteered teaching kids how to sew.

Since 1978 she’s led Girl Scout troops while her daughter was growing up, and now leads her granddaughter’s troop. Smedley said she loves teaching the girls in ways that are outside the box. She’s a hands-on, touch it and see it sort of person, and uses that strategy with the girls. She’s got a gentle voice and is quick to offer a smile to all of her Girl Scouts.

“She brings to the table a whole new way of learning,” Fiona Orzolek, the mother of one of her Girl Scouts, said.

Smedley’s favorite moments are when she can tell the girls are really grasping something new.

“If you can just spark one little idea…just to be able to see the light bulbs go off,” she said. “They’re like little sponges.”

Tapping senior experience

Having a new outlet to express themselves is what inspires many seniors to volunteer, said Jane Watkins, executive director of Florida Senior Programs, which encompasses senior volunteer organization RSVP Orlando and Foster Grandparents of Central Florida.

It’s a great way for seniors to continue to contribute their expertise and experience after they retire, and to explore interests they didn’t have time for before.

“Their identity is associated with work, and when they retire they lose that,” Watkins said.

Watkins says they’re a resource society doesn’t always readily tap into, though. There’s this assumption that life slows down as a senior, the vision of someone tired or fragile and stuck in a wheelchair. But really, there’s a wisdom that comes with experience, and that makes seniors great problem solvers.

“They are a productive part of society, they have a place here…but they are too often ignored,” she said. “As a community we need to recognize their skills.”

Home Instead is looking to reverse those ideas with their recognition of senior volunteers.

“We’re on a mission to change the face of aging,” Debra Foscolo, owner of the Home Instead Senior Care office in Orlando, said. “Your life’s not ending.”

Improving quality of life

Smedley’s certainly isn’t. She calls being a senior her “second childhood.” And volunteering has been a place to keep her active and engaged with her community, which is a benefit research says greatly improves the quality of life for seniors. For many, family is far away and seniors can become isolated quickly. It’s a way to make friends and help self-confidence while making a difference in others’ lives.

While Smedley is very close to her family, she said her volunteer work is something that has helped her cope with the recent loss of her husband.

“Right now it fills the loneliness,” she said.

And she can’t be lonely when there’s a whole group of 8- and 9-year-old girls looking to her for advice, reassurance and grandmotherly encouragement. She fills that void for some of them, and hopes that she teaches them to “have a conscience.” Her granddaughter has learned that and more from Smedley – that she can be the best at whatever she tries.

“I can improve anything,” Ashley Smedley, 9, said.


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