Harnessing retirement to serve the poor

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Alaska has had its share of movie-making excitement. There were whales that needed Drew Barrymore to save them (“Big Miracle”) and the hunt for a true-life Anchorage serial killer (“The Frozen Ground”). Filming in a small community can be a big deal.

So when Alexander Payne brought Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig to Omaha, where I live, to shoot scenes from his upcoming movie, “Downsizing,” it made a media splash. Payne, something of a local hero, grew up in Omaha and often films here.

Suddenly, Matt Damon sightings were everywhere. In the social satire movie Damon apparently shrinks to five inches tall to lead a better life in these environmentally challenged times.

I wasn’t too interested until I read that Creighton Prep, the local Jesuit High School, would be closing down one Wednesday afternoon for an evening of filming. Prep is Payne’s alma mater, but I was scheduled to go to a meeting there that night.

The Jesuits’ Wisconsin Province was hosting the local director of the Ignatian Volunteer Corps to explain that organization’s volunteer opportunities for retired people to work with the poor.

I had RSVPed weeks before, but it appeared no one was getting into Prep that night except movie folks.

Eventually, we were all redirected by e-mail to an Italian eatery, where someone from the province joked that it appeared Hollywood had more clout than the Jesuits, who got kicked out of their own facility.

Despite the venue change, I learned a lot about the Ignatian Volunteer Corps. One thing I learned is that IVC does not have chapters in the Northwest. But the Jesuit Volunteer Corps:NW, which continues to serve Alaska where it began sixty years ago, has a very similar program called EnCorps.

Both EnCorps and IVC pair people 50 years and older with agencies which serve the poor and need their expertise and experience. It’s a commitment of a day or two a week. Many professionals — attorneys, teachers, nurses — give back in their chosen fields while staying in their own homes.

It’s sort of a Jesuit Volunteer Corps for the far side of middle age, with the benefit that you don’t live in community with a housemate who never does the dishes. And you also don’t work full-time — you have plenty of time to pursue retirement fun.

It’s a boon for agencies, and a great way to embrace Pope Francis’ call to serve the poor and those living on the margins. A recent issue of “America” magazine shared the story (“Aging with Ignatius”) of a retired judge, Barbara Lee, who has spent the last 16 years of her retirement as an Ignatian Volunteer teaching English at an immigration service center in Manhattan.

Omaha’s program was launched when a retired couple offered to direct the program for free for its first few years. Now, IVC has a paid director here and is one of the most successful programs in the country.

I realize many older Catholics find plenty of ways to give back without joining an organization. But the upsides of IVC or EnCorps include forming community with other volunteers, retreats, and a chance to expand Ignatian education and values like simple living.

Presently, EnCorps has programs in Bend and Portland, Oregon, and in Seattle and Spokane. For more information on EnCorps, google JVC:Northwest.org or call (503) 335-8202.

Filming is completed now, and all the celebrities have left town. But, as someone once said, the poor you have always with you.

EnCorps and IVC are good ways of being with the poor and reminding us that we never age out of that directive.

The writer is formerly from Anchorage. She now lives in Omaha, Neb.


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