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"Unretiree" Fellowship Aims To Harness Skills Of Older Adults To Help Dayton Nonprofits

Fellow Kaye Jeter left retirement to work part-time leading a research project for the Dayton Metro Library.
Jess Mador
Fellow Kaye Jeter left retirement to work part-time leading a research project for the Dayton Metro Library.

For generations of Americans, the dream of retirement meant permanent vacation -- the chance for a hard-earned break on the beach or golf course. Now, more older Americans appear to be opting out of that dream.

The need for continued income remains a major reason for delayed retirement overall, but recent national survey data show many people over age 50 who could afford to retire are choosing not to, telling pollsters they'd opt out of retirement to pursue a passion or help their community.

In Dayton, a new fellowship program for senior citizens is tapping into this trend.

Strollers park between the stacks in the children’s wing of the Dayton Metro Library in downtown Dayton. Preschoolers read and play on the floor as parents and caregivers watch or read nearby.

Kaye Jeter has spent a lot of time at the library over the last year. Actually, 18 libraries.

She’s leading a project to help the library system better understand the need in the community for more afterschool homework assistance. Jeter's also testing a new volunteer-run program at the Trotwood branch.

"We decided to call all the programs Rock Your Homework. It's just a way to get the students inspired," she says. "Don't come in and do your homework. Rock it, rock it, rock it."

The Dayton-born Jeter is 73. Her library project is part of a recently launched Dayton Foundation program called the Del Mar Encore Fellows Initiative.

It matches Miami Valley nonprofits with highly skilled seniors like Jeter with the goal of helping the organizations solve big community problems.

Relaxing in an armchair wearing a hot pink beret and matching pink glasses, Jeter describes her long career as an attorney and a Ph.D.

She practiced law, and worked around the country in government, in K-12 education and in higher ed, including at Fisk University and Central State University, where she was Dean.

A few years ago, Jeter retired.

“I just stopped. One day I worked and the next day I didn't,” she says. ;

She was ready for a change, ready to stop working full-time. She traveled, took care of sick relatives.

"It was OK for a while, but I just didn't feel like I was I was doing what I should be doing." 

Jeter says retirement wasn’t for her. She felt she had more to contribute. But she wasn’t sure how at her age. Then, she found a path.

“I just opened up the newspaper one day and there was this article about Encore and fellows. I had no idea what it was, but I started reading that they were looking for people who were retired and successful and could help nonprofit organizations, help, oh, my goodness [she thought], that's me.”

She applied to the program and was accepted. Now, Jeter works around 20 hours per week at the library and earns a stipend through the fellowship of $25,000 a year.

Her assignment involves designing and leading a research study to assess the effectiveness of homework assistance programs in Dayton and other cities around the country, and help the Dayton library system adapt an existing grant-funded afterschool program into a new sustainable, volunteer-driven model. 

She started by surveying nearly 350 parents and library staff.

Longtime educator Jeter created an incentive program for the children who participate in her pilot afterschool, library based homework-help programs in Dayton and Trotwood.
Credit Jess Mador / WYSO
Longtime educator Jeter created an incentive program for the children who participate in her pilot afterschool, library based homework-help programs in Dayton and Trotwood.

"I was having fun," she says. "I'm getting an opportunity to go walk in these libraries and actually meet librarians and just talk to them and find out what they're doing and see how they feel about it. It was great to be able to talk to the people that I don't know anything about, gathering all this stuff and listening to what they had to say."

The fellowship has so far deployed nearly half a dozen other senior citizens to Miami Valley nonprofits, including the Area Agency on Aging, St. Mary Development Corporation and YWCA Dayton.

Dayton Foundation host organizations provide fellows with basic supplies, staff support and office space. The rest is covered by the program.

Noreen Willhelm with the Dayton Foundation, which created the Del Mar Encore Fellows Initiative, estimates the financial value of the fellowship at $1 million since the program started a couple years ago.

But, Willhelm says what seniors bring to their organizations is worth a lot more than salary savings. Applicants are chosen for their expertise.

“These are people with Ph.Ds, EDDs, law degrees. And if a nonprofit wants to address an issue, the likelihood that they could afford the kind of experience and skills that the fellows present," she says, "is pretty slim."

Still, many of these highly credentialed senior citizen fellows lack computer or web skills. Some left the workforce for years before becoming fellows.

So, why not recruit twentysomethings fresh out of college with the 21st century skills of today’s digital workplace for fellowships instead?

"Everybody is a worthy part of the economy, including retired people, and we should approach it in that way," says Zdravka Todorova, chair of the Economics Department at Wright State University, and a professor of Economics.

She doesn’t see a generational conflict in creating opportunities for seniors to reenter the workplace after retirement. She says there are economic benefits to an intergenerational workplace. 

"The need for mentorship of younger, newer entries into the labor force and the need for social contribution. I mean, these are like two glaring things put together. It affects beneficially the economy," Todorova says.

The United States population aging and national surveys show more Americans expect to keep working.

A recent Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll found nearly one-quarter of Americans say they never plan to retire.

The reasons are complicated: many retirement-age people can’t afford to stop working. A good percentage haven’t saved enough for retirement. Many struggle with medical expenses or debt.

But other surveys, including a Harris Poll on behalf of TD Ameritrade, show a growing number of older Americans who could afford to retire are choosing not to.

The trend doesn’t surprise economist Todorova, who says for many people, work offers an opportunity for fulfilment they don't find in other areas of their lives. When they stop working, that avenue for self-actualization often dries up.

For 68-year-old fellow Frieda Bennett, her fellowship placement at St. Mary Development Corporation offered her a flexible way to use her skills while also helping other older people.

She's researching how the faith-based nonprofit could connect low-income senior residents with health care and other services using technology such as telehealth. 

"I had been a faculty member and an administrator at Sinclair in the area of business. So this project just fit in with the things that I love, working with technology, working with and doing evaluation and research, so it just seemed like a perfect fit for me," she says. "For me, it's a way of getting back. Probably more than anything, I see it as a way to give back to my community and help those who may not be able to get this kind of support that I would be able to give them."  

Dayton Foundation officials say they hope to expand the Del Mar Encore fellows initiative to tap into more older adults' skills, and help pass on their knowledge to workers in younger generations.

At the downtown Dayton library, fellow Jeter says the fellowship has turned her into an evangelist. She wants to see more healthy seniors like her get involved in the community.

"I'm on a crusade now that there ought to be, which there isn't, someplace you can go when you retire and you have as much experience as I had, and basically a successful career. I got a chance to say, oh, my God, I can give back."

Jeter has completed the first year of her fellowship and her contract’s been renewed.

She’s looking forward to spending the next year refining her research, and recruiting more volunteers and parents to help more Dayton students “rock their homework.”

Jess Mador comes to WYSO from Knoxville NPR-station WUOT, where she created an interactive multimedia health storytelling project called TruckBeat, one of 15 projects around the country participating in AIR's Localore: #Finding America initiative. Before TruckBeat, Jess was an independent public radio journalist based in Minneapolis. She’s also worked as a staff reporter and producer at Minnesota Public Radio in the Twin Cities, and produced audio, video and web stories for a variety of other news outlets, including NPR News, APM, and PBS television stations. She has a Master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York. She loves making documentaries and telling stories at the intersection of journalism, digital and social media.