The Richest People in Northern Michigan

REGION – For those who do it, and do it often, there are riches that can never be banked.

Welcome to world of volunteering.

Each year, hundreds of thousands of volunteer hours are contributed to hundreds of nonprofit organizations across northern Michigan. These organizations provide an array of services and support, as well as contribute to the economic and community vitality of towns dotting the coastline and stretching deeply inland.

While volunteers come in all ages, the retired or 55 and older volunteer is a powerful part of the region's network. In fact, the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) – a national program of the United Way of Northwest Michigan – is designed to connect individuals 55 years "or better" with meaningful volunteer opportunities, said United Way's Volunteer Center Coordinator Susan McQuaid.

"We have approximately 500 volunteers in the program that volunteer across the five-county area," McQuaid said about the 45-year-old program. "These people contribute some 35,000 volunteer hours annually to approximately 300 different agencies."

Now these volunteers can give back to their own. A new RSVP volunteer option is the "Tuesday Toolman" program, in which a small group heads to homes of low to very low income residents 65 and older for small home safety jobs, such as installing a grab bar in the bathroom, changing batteries in smoke detectors or even changing light bulbs.

The impact volunteers 55 and older have on this region is phenomenal, said Steve Wade, local United Way executive director, who is often one of the first people to chat with them.

"People walk in our door," said Wade. "They tell us they are retiring in the community and ask, 'How can you use me?'"

Still others are planning for the future. Wade recalls meeting with a man who wants to retire here with this wife in the next few years. When they do make the move, they want to hit the ground running and so have begun researching ways to help in the community.

"That is happening more and more often," Wade says, of the post-professional demographic that is either new to the area or soon will be.

National accolades are ensuring this trend will only grow. In October 2011, U.S. News & World Report named Traverse City one of the Top 10 places to retire in 2012. That followed similar designations by both Money Magazine and USA Weekend.

Something else that stands out to Wade?

"The credentials and skills these people are bringing along with them," he said. "Combine that with a generous spirit of people who move here because this is where they want to be and you've got hundreds of vibrant and valued volunteers."

Wade points to the United Way's local board of directors as an example. It specifically advertised and interviewed for a few board openings and found a former president of two universities who had retired here.

"He's a great strategic thinker," said Wade, adding that if they hadn't solicited for board volunteers, they very likely may never have connected.

"The days of the passive ask are over; you've got to make a direct request," he said.

One of the services United Way's Volunteer Center offers is the opportunity for organizations to communicate their specific wishes – a volunteer profile of sorts, which consequently results in better matches.

Conversely, individuals can enter their specific criteria and get volunteering options that match their interests – sort of like online dating for the volunteer world. (See sidebar.)

Volunteering for Tradition's Sake

The National Cherry Festival has had an ambassador volunteer program for more than 86 years. Some of those festival ambassadors have been around for more than half a century, according to Jessica Schlimme, volunteer and corporate membership manager for the festival.

"It's a annual tradition for them to come help festival week and reunite with other ambassadors that they may only see once a year," Schlimme said.

The Cherry Festival offers a variety of volunteer options tailored for people 55 and older, she said. One such example is volunteer roles that allow them to work in a group.

"This allows social time while being part of a community tradition," said Schlimme. "It keeps them coming back year after year."

The Cherry Festival plans on utilizing RSVP more in the coming years as the anticipated demand for volunteers continues to increase, Schlimme said.

For more information about the RSVP program or volunteering through United Way, visit for more information or contact RSVP coordinator Kate Kerr at 231-947-3200, ext. 203. To learn