Mad Volunteer Scientists: Do You Know the Way To San Jose?

IMG_2016 - Copy copyAs she prepared for the 2015 White House Conference on Aging — an event that happens only once a decade — conference director Nora Super visited California, her first stop San Francisco to meet Marc Freedman.

In aging circles, Freedman’s a rock star. His is a wildly successful business incubator for encore careers and late life entrepreneurship. So when the organization in November launched its intergenerational effort to engage older adult volunteers – Generation to Generation – people took note.

“This is’s first attempt to mobilize people over 50 to solve a specific social issue, says Sarah McKinney, communications director for Gen2Gen. “And helping children seemed like the most pressing one.”

Gen2Gen largely piggybacks on 46 existing organizations — think Boys and Girls Clubs — tapping into Encore’s wealth of connections to drop intergenerational seeds like a volunteer Johnny Appleseed.

Wrapped inside the initiative is another intriguing effort that spotlights California: four Learning Labs that are busy experimenting – like crazed social alchemists – with ways to transform the leaden uncertainly of late life transition and social isolation into gold-plated volunteerism. Two are located in San Jose and Los Angeles, the others in Seattle and Boston.

I Feel Good

Pairing older adult volunteers with children is the ultimate intergenerational win-win. Research shows that from volunteerism springs more purpose and better health. Kids benefit from more attention, higher self-esteem, and better grades.

“From a health perspective, it’s fantastic for older people because they just light up around kids,” says McKinney.

The director of the Stanford Center on Longevity says volunteering is actually one of the best way to take care of older adults.

“It actually works better if we ask them to take care of us,” says Laura Carstensen.

But old school volunteering won’t cut it.

Baby Boomers are a demanding bunch, and engaging them as volunteers requires more than envelope-stuffing. The rules of engagement are changing fast: make it meaningful, keep it flexible, and customize it to capitalize on unique skills.

Do You Know the Way to San Jose?

With a population larger than San Francisco, San Jose is employing its Learning Lab to complement one of Mayor Sam Liccardo’s top priorities: help kids. The city has already created programs for early childhood development, math and reading proficiency, and college and workforce prep.

At the southern edge of Silicon Valley, San Jose is perfectly positioned to exploit tech industry retirees… and its burnouts.

Heading San Jose’s Learning Lab is Dima Khoury, a tech industry veteran who for two decades was head of engineering at Cisco Systems before retiring in 2014.

“I’m trying to find my second act in life,” says Khoury. “Service and giving back is my passion.”

Using the mayor’s office to blend its chemicals, the San Jose lab is reaching out to groups spanning libraries to community centers, after school programs, civic organizations, the parks and rec department, even The HealthTrust – dedicated to a healthier Silicon Valley – many with existing volunteer programs.

Khanh Russo, who heads the city’s Office of Strategic Partnerships and Innovation, offers up other intriguing outreach possibilities. Facebook. Cocktail parties. The online neighborhood portal Nextdoor. Even dating sites.

And San Jose is aiming high: 1,000 volunteers 50+ by the end of this year.

San Jose rests inside Santa Clara County where health department officials — knowing that volunteerism can reduce health care costs — have struggled to launch a pilot program to engage older adult volunteers.

Meanwhile, Gen2Gen is already making inroads there as infuses some of its whopping 800 national participating fellows within partners like First 5 Santa Clara County. Bob Crum spent 40 years in the tech industry — 30 with Hewlett-Packard – and leads the First 5 volunteer outreach effort.

Crum works with six of the county’s 15 Family Resource Centers to recruit older adult volunteers, with a goal of 10 per site this year.

“Personally, I’m hoping that will be pretty easy,” he says.

Crum came to when a consulting contract with another tech firm wasn’t renewed, and today bemoans what he considers the blatant ageism of the tech industry.

“People don’t even try to hide it anymore.”

But Silicon Valley’s loss can be California’s gain.

“We’ve got this amazing human capital walking out the door,” says Carstensen, author of A Long Bright Future. “When people volunteer before retirement, 75% continue into retirement.”

We Got This

Further south, San Diego County has already firmly established itself as one of the nation’s intergenerational leaders, sparked by a health initiative embracing all generations.

In 2002, the county hired a full-time intergenerational coordinator, who launched mentoring programs and an annual Intergenerational Games.

The efforts proved so successful the county recently added three regional intergenerational coordinators, which spawned two advisory councils and improved outreach. The county then added yet another coordinator — one dedicated solely to its child welfare department.

“Our goal is to infuse the intergenerational lens into everything we do,” says Pam Plimpton, the county’s head of intergenerational activities. She applauds the pro-active, countywide Live Well San Diego initiative as the critical spark for its efforts.


Intergenerational programs are fast gaining momentum. In California, ONEGeneration fuses daycare programs for older adults and kids. The Eisner Foundation in LA now solely funds intergenerational programs.

Nationally, The AARP Foundation operates its Experience Corps. And the advocacy group Generations United fosters this work across the country.

“We need to build a society where older people are the resource younger people need,” says Carstensen.

“A lot of kids are waiting for mentors,” echoes McKinney. “This is a no-brainer.”

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