Service Matters: Remarks for the Board of the Corporation for National and Community Service

David R. Jones

Good Morning Members of the Board.

Thank you for inviting me here today to offer some testimony on the impact of the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) in New York City.

Before I get to that, let me tell you about the organization I work for, the Community Service Society of New York. CSS is one of the city’s premier anti-poverty organizations.

With more than 170 years of research, advocacy and services on behalf of low-income New Yorkers informing our viewpoint, CSS uses cutting-edge research to address root causes of economic disparity and advance policy prescriptions and innovative programs that promote self-sufficiency among low-income New Yorkers.

CSS experts in the fields of housing, education, health and re-entry are frequently called upon to testify before legislative bodies on our research findings—just one of the ways we influence policy decisions, convey the struggles and challenges that poor people face in these difficult economic times, and help change the conversation about poverty.

There are often multiple barriers impeding a person’s ability to achieve economic security and mobility. This is particularly true for people living in poverty or high-poverty communities.  We believe government has a role to play in reducing these barriers so that everyone – irrespective of their economic status – has an opportunity to thrive.

To that end, through our reports, services, partnerships forged with advocate organizations, and engaging of elected officials, community-based organizations and business leaders, we try to highlight effective solutions that present a pathway out of poverty to economic participation. Over our history, CSS has been the catalyst behind several significant and notable anti-poverty initiatives:

  • In 1862, we led the effort to pass the city’s first pure milk legislation;
  • In 1898, we organized a summer course in social work which was the precursor to the Columbia University School of Social Work;
  • In 1913, we designed the prototype for the city’s free lunch program, which ultimately became nationwide;
  • In 1996, we launched Experience Corps, an intergenerational literacy program for young students at risk of failure in poor performing schools;
  • In 2002, we launched “The Unheard Third” annual survey – the only regular survey of low-income opinion in the U. S.
  • In 2009, a CSS report revealing the widespread lack of paid sick days among low-income workers in New York would become the foundation for a campaign to pass a paid sick leave law this year(In fact, yesterday, was the first day workers could take advantage of the law.)
  • In 2011, the state named our Community Health Advocates as New York’s Statewide Consumer Assistance Program helping people access health coverage and care through community-based organizations in 61 NY State counties.

And, in 1966, we launched the pilot for what would become the national RSVP Program. The program was started on Staten Island with just 23 volunteers 

Today, we have more than 3,555 volunteers working in 357 community-based organizations throughout the city.

From its inception, RSVP was designed and implemented with two significant goals in mind:

  • Harnessing the time, talents and experience of older adults by providing them with important and impactful work;
  • And, expanding and enhancing the resources available to communities and the nonprofit sector.

Here are some statistics that underscore the cost-efficiency and value RSVP brings to the NYC communities it serves: 

  • Yearly Federal Cost per Volunteer is $205
  • Yearly Federal cost per Volunteer hour is $1.13
  • And last but certainly not least . . .
  • Value to the Community is $4.6 million if calculated at minimum wage

As you can see, for a very modest investment of federal funds, RSVP is delivering much needed services to residents of all ages throughout our communities.

Our volunteers assist New Yorkers in a variety of important areas:  this includes working in soup kitchens, tutoring in afterschool programs, providing adult education, mentoring troubled children, assisting homebound seniors and much more.

Here are selected examples of specific outcomes produced by RSVP:

  • 6,974 clients were assisted last year in obtaining government benefits to which they were entitled.
  • 749 clients received counseling in debt management, creating budgets and avoiding predatory lending practices.
  • 146 children of incarcerated parents and adolescents beginning to enter the criminal justice system were mentored.
  • 1,400 clients were provided information on health insurance access and benefits as part of the ACA.
  • 10,749 veterans received assistance in VA facilities and mentoring in the Queens Veterans Court.
  • 25,835 people in need were served at soup kitchens and food pantries.
  • 6,072 homebound older adults and people with disabilities received home delivered hot meals.
  • 686 homebound frail elderly and people with disabilities received friendly visits, escort services, and shopping assistance
  • 490 clients were assisted in obtaining GED’s which will open doors to employment and higher education.
  • 964 clients with poor English speaking skills were assisted in improving their English language skills

But the program also contributes in ways that can’t be measured or quantified on paper.

Volunteering is its own reward. RSVP volunteers give back to society in meaningful ways that make our communities stronger, enhance the work of nonprofits organizations and fill voids left by the elimination of government services. But the value to society of the program also extends to the volunteers themselves. 

Studies show that older volunteers who are engaged in social and civic efforts significantly improve their own physical and mental health. In the next two decades, the number of Americans age 55 and older will swell from 76 million to 110 million as the large baby boom generation continues to age.  Older Americans’ health and well-being is important for the entire society, and the longer they can live independently, the lower the social costs will be for the society as a whole.  Whether older Americans can delay or prevent disability associated with advanced age will depend in part on how they spend their time after retirement.  A growing body of research suggests that older adults who are engaged in social and community activities maintain mental and physical health longer than older adults who are not.

As a senior citizen myself I can certainly attest to the benefits of staying active. Of course, in my case that means mostly digging up weeds and hauling peat moss, top soil and various botanical items around my wife’s garden. Let me tell you, its hard work. But our RSVP volunteers put me to shame.

Let me close my presentation by sharing with you some details from my recent visits to Washington to meet with Congressional leaders on the need for continued funding for RSVP and maintaining Senior Corps in its current structure.

As I met with congressional representatives from both sides of the aisle, from Montana to Georgia   what became increasingly clear is that RSVP works everywhere – in rural, urban, and suburban communities.  The program addresses local needs and is shaped by the localities where it operates.  The program demonstrates the tremendous value and effectiveness of a true public/private partnership.

Well-conceived programs such as RSVP have the dual effect of increasing civic engagement for the betterment of communities, while showing older adults the many benefits of volunteering. I am very proud of what we are accomplishing through RSVP.  And I hope we can continue to provide this platform for older adults to give back to their communities, and in the process make their lives more fulfilling and meaningful.

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Community Service Society of New York is a registered 501(c)3.  EIN: 13-5562202