Creation of the RSVP and Vol. Action Center

When I was Director of the University Year for Action program at Western Washington University a student volunteer, Chris Avalon, told me about funds available for a program getting seniors involved in community volunteer activities. I called the national office of the Retired Senior Volunteer Program and got the forms for applying for an RSVP grant. I proceeded to write the grant proposal that got the program started in Bellingham.

I designed a program that would get the seniors involved in speech therapy along with the student UYA volunteers in public school speech therapy programs. This would be only one of many ways we would get seniors involved in community service activities but it was to be the focus of the new organization.

Soon after the grant was submitted to the ACTION office in Washington, DC I was called back there for a meeting of UYA program directors. It just happened that there was a joint meeting of the Boards of Directors of the AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) and RTA (Retired Teachers Association) being held in the same hotel where I was staying. These two organizations were among the largest voluntary associations in America at the time. The time and location of the reception was noted on the hotel bulletin board, and not being shy, I decided to crash the reception.

At the reception I was enthusiastically talking about the RSVP-UYA program for putting seniors and college students in the classroom to help kids needing speech therapy when the person I was talking to said “I would like to invite you to join us for dinner.” I responded, “Don’t you need permission of someone to invite me to join you?” “No,” he said, “I am the President of AARP and you will be my guest.” [How’s that for crashing a party?]

During dinner he introduced me to the assembled dinner guests and said “Dr. Drake, why don’t you take three minutes and tell us about your program ideas for Bellingham.” At the end of my comments he turned to a man seated next to him and stated “This is the kind of program we want to see funded.” That person happened to be the Director of all Senior Programs for ACTION at the national level. After dinner he asked that I call on him the next day, which I did. Our program was funded, of course.

When I ran for a seat on the Bellingham City Council a year later I used the slogan “The greatest untapped resource of the community is the talent and good will of its citizens”. Once on the council I created the Civic Partnership program for placing citizens in volunteer positions with city agencies such as the Park Department, Library, Police Dept., etc. That program was funded with money from the city budget. Later it was expanded to include county programs and was combined with a new struggling Voluntary Action Agency to become a single organization. I helped get on-going city funding to help pay for staff. About a decade later it joined the RSVP in a single office.

Today, some 35 years since its founding, the local RSVP program has over 4,300 registered volunteers who, in 2007, volunteered over 100,000 hours of community service. The Whatcom Voluntary Action Agency had over 1,200 volunteers last year donate more than 280,000 hours of community service. I think we can say that these two agencies that I helped create many years ago are an outstanding credit to our community.

I think that I can truthfully say that the impetus for the creation of this type of program came out of the scrap paper drives and the drives for aluminum pots and pans and other metals held by Troop 59 of Manasquan, New Jersey that I participated in during the years of the Second World War and following. This was the Boy Scout oath and law in action. It is community resource mobilizing at its finest. It is taking Boy Scout values into the wider community giving all citizens a structured way to help their fellow citizens.

One thing has to be noted though, and that is the self realization that my talent lies in dreaming up these organizations, designing their structure, getting the funding and giving them a kick-start and then getting out of the way. I am not an administrator. I am the guy that has the vision and who happens to have a Ph.D. in community sociology, knows something about community systems analysis, etc. and can put these things together. But I also have the sense to leave them alone once they get started. In creating the UYA we had staff called “Volunteer Coordinators.” Now many large public agencies have such and there is now in our community an association of professional community agency volunteer coordinators.