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Operation A.B.L.E. helps older volunteers find work

Shelly Runyon

When Almin Sutton-Berkeley, a resident of Mattapan in her 50s, was laid off in 2011, she didn’t wait for the jobs to come to her.

“I was laid off from my job and I was at the Mattapan library,” she said, “and there was a flyer and it said … if you are unemployed, 48 and over, Operation A.B.L.E. will help you give you the tools to get back to work.”

Sutton-Berkeley later learned that Operation A.B.L.E. of Greater Boston has been helping “older” workers find jobs in Boston for the last 30 years.

Sutton-Berkeley got involved with a newer division of the organization, funded by Tufts Health Plan’s community support initiative for the past two years, which seeks to improve the quality of life for older citizens by providing an outlet for civic engagement.

She volunteered two days a week for the organization at their offices on Tremont Street in Boston and was also placed in a volunteer role at Mass General Hospital. She said that she stayed with the organization because of the encouragement and boost in self-esteem she received.

When you are unemployed, she said, “it makes you feel good about yourself to be doing something more worthwhile. It gives you a positive outlook on life. You aren’t wasting your time feeling sorry for yourself; you are out helping people while you are looking for work.”

Tom McFarland, communications director for Operation A.B.L.E. said that a big problem with the long-term unemployed is that they need to stay active in the skills that they use in a job.  

He emphasized that this is true regardless of long-term goals. Whether a person wants to return to work or not, maintaining those skills helps keep people healthy and increases their quality of life.

While the main thrust of the program is just to keep people doing meaningful activities, McFarland said, “the fact that people are getting jobs is a nice surprise.”

He said about one of every six volunteers who came to the organization in the last year just to keep active and busy ended up finding paid employment through the connections they made.

For Sutton-Berkeley, even though her volunteerism was not meant to lead to a job placement, after only a few months she found herself re-employed.

She said that one of her fellow volunteers gave her a tip about John Leonard Employment, a temporary work agency in Boston, which led to her current placement in a temporary position at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory at Harvard University.

Donna Scarlett, 57, a resident of Dorchester, also found meaningful work at Operation A.B.L.E. that led to employment. She volunteered for the organization for a few months before they recognized her talents and asked her to fill a role inside the organization, recruiting volunteers and managing the program.

“It’s been a really great experience,” she said. “To be a volunteer and then to come manage the program, I’ve really enjoyed it.”

In her role, Scarlett was responsible for pairing the older citizens that she recruited with companies seeking volunteers.

She offered the example of Action for Boston Community Development (ABCD), a nonprofit organization that works with families to overcome poverty, which has partnered with Operation A.B.L.E. for years, and the relationship is mutually beneficial. She said that ABCD is one of the organizations that will consistently offer opportunities for older citizens to retrain while volunteering.

“ABCD said they needed someone to answer phones, fax, filing, and if someone wanted to work on their computer skills while they are there, they can do that,” she said. “It’s a way for people to get a new skill.”

Scarlett said that people often are attracted to the organization because of the potential to learn a new skill and fill a hole on their resumé.

She emphasized that volunteering doesn’t have to take up a lot of time, but it can have a great impact to both parties. She calls it “strategic volunteering.”

Sutton-Berkeley said that the volunteering program is excellent, but it’s McFarland and Scarlett that kept her coming back. “They are very supportive, very, very supportive,” she said. “They actually want to know what you are up to – and they involve you in all their little social events that they have — (I was) even invited to their Christmas party.”

She said that even though she hasn’t worked with Operation A.B.L.E since February, they still call to check in, see if she’s happy and if she wants a new assignment. No matter what, she says, they make you feel as though “you are very much part of them.”