With children grown and gone or careers successfully completed, Baby Boomers may find themselves with free time. A new Hopewell Township program hopes to match them with a fulfilling way to use it: volunteering with a local fire company or first aid squad.
The benefits are mutual, said Hopewell Valley Senior Services coordinator Randi Knechel, who started the program: The volunteer organizations always need volunteers and can greatly benefit from the experience and skills these 50- and 60-somethings have to offer. And in this stage of their lives, members of the generation that defied all the rules may find themselves craving a little structure.
“Newly retired people sometimes go into depression because they lack the schedule of going somewhere and doing something meaningful every day,” Knechel said. “Parents whose kids are now out of the house, who have no family to take care of and whose day is done when the leave work at 5 with no sporting events, concerts, or other activities may experience the same thing.”
Volunteering with an organization that literally saves the lives and property of your neighbors imparts a strong sense of purpose and is incredibly rewarding, Knechel said. “Learning new skills, or using a lifetime of skills in a new way, keeps a brain young, she said. “You’re never too old to learn something new.”
Hopewell Fire Department and Emergency Medical Unit, Pennington Fire Company, Pennington First Aid Squad and Union Fire Company and Rescue Squad all need volunteers. There are no upper age limits. There are physical requirements that must be met for all emergency response roles, but the need for other kinds of volunteers is also great.
“These organizations also need non-emergency members to do things like organize and lead special events and fundraisers, maintain the stations or squad house, and serve in administrative roles,” Knechel said.
There doesn’t even need to be a specific time commitment, she added.
“Something as simple as volunteering to help out at weekend events or being available to let the air conditioner guy in or show someone the banquet hall can make a big difference,” she said.
Mary Jane Chipowsky, 68, was working with her husband, Mike, at Hopewell Valley’s 9/11 Memorial Ceremony when the members of the Pennington Fire Company Ladies’ Auxiliary first impressed her.
“They were bringing desserts for after the ceremony, and they were just so helpful,” remembered Chipowsky, whose husband belongs to Union Fire Company and Rescue Squad and is now Chairman of the Hopewell Township Board of Fire Commissioners. She had retired from her job as principal of a Riverside middle school several years earlier, and had time to give. “I said, ‘You know, I really think I should join. I really need to pay back the firefighters for everything you do for the community.’”
Ladies’ auxiliaries of all the Hopewell Valley fire houses run special events and sales to to purchase items the fire companies could otherwise not afford. They also directly support firefighters and EMTs who are on a scene for many hours or are hunkered down at the station when a hurricane or winter storm is forecast.
Pennington’s Ladies Auxiliary has purchased a tent that creates a resting area at fire scenes and a water sprayer that helps firefighters stay cool.
“During the hurricane, we went to the firehouse and made food so that the people who were out pumping basements and such could have something there waiting for them,” she said.
Chipowsky has since also joined the ladies auxiliary at Union Fire Company and Rescue Squad and is now the president of the Mercer County Firemen’s Association Ladies’ Auxiliary and the treasure of the Ladies’ Auxiliary of the Firemen of the State of New Jersey.
“I’m not putting out fires or saving somebody from a flood or cleaning out water in a basement, but I am doing whatever I can to assist the people who do,” she said. “It makes you feel really good.”
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As a member of Pennington First Aid Squad, Diane C.A. Snyder, 59, has helped deliver babies, performed CPR on cardiac patients, and started care for stroke victims as they were rushed to the hospital.
A retired CIA officer who spent time as a medic early in her career and has a pre-med undergraduate degree, Snyder joined Pennington First Aid seven years ago, drawn to the squad by the opportunity to volunteer and pursue New Jersey and National EMT certifications immediately.
“I found myself wanting to return to medicine in an uncontrolled environment,” she said.
But community first-response also involves nonmedical care that’s just as important, Snyder said. It sometimes means spending time with a person who fell after assessing he or she doesn’t need additional medical care, and making sure there are no tripping hazards in the home. It means recognizing a call has come from the home of someone with dementia. It means teaching CPR to the Girl Scouts.
With this kind of variety of situations, the maturity and life experience of Baby Boomers is a valuable asset to the squad, she said.
“College students may have technical and classroom skills that are very important, but someone in their 50’s or 60’s has seen more life,” Snyder said. That balance on the squad is important, she added.
After the CIA, Snyder taught courses on intelligence, national security, and constitutional democracy at Princeton University, a position she left two years ago. She volunteers alongside people from every imaginable profession—any skills people join with are put to use, and needed medical skills are taught in the EMT course and other training.
Why does she keep volunteering?
“It’s a challenge and experience you can’t get anywhere else,” Snyder said. “I feel so much a part of the Pennington community. This sense of connection to this place and everyone in it is so fulfilling, and I can’t imagine another way of building anything quite like it.”
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Boomers who join a Hopewell Valley fire company will find themselves among many peers, including Ted Warwick, assistant chief at Pennington Fire Company, and John Novak Sr., firefighter, training officer, and former chief at Hopewell Fire Department.
Both have been active firemen for many years and continue to love it. “It feels like I’m helping the community,” Novak, 67, said.
Regardless of age and physical ability, Novak and Warwick agree, but there’s a way for everyone to contribute at a firehouse.
Ambulance and firetruck drivers are needed, and so are fire police, who help direct traffic and control fire and accident scenes, Warwick said.
People are needed to do administrative work and to run events like the pancake breakfasts.
No fire or EMS unit can run without these non-emergency functions, Novak said, and it’s extremely beneficial for a company to have members who exclusively concentrate on non-emergency functions, because that means the burden doesn’t rest squarely on the shoulders of firefighters and EMTs, who in addition to emergency response, spend much time training.
“If you want to be a part of it, we have a role for you,” said Warwick.
Knechel, Hopewell Valley Senior Services Coordinator, was uniquely suited to start a program matching new retirees and empty nesters with the Hopewell Valley fire and EMS organizations who need them.
She’s focused on the needs of those 50-and-older in her career, and focused on the needs of fire and EMS as a volunteer. Knechel is president of Union Fire Company and Rescue Squad’s Ladies Auxiliary, with which she has volunteered for 13 years. Her Baby Boomer dad, Bryan Malkiewicz, is Union Fire’s chief.
Boomers, or those of any age interested in volunteering with a Hopewell Valley fire or EMS unit, can visit protecthopewellvalley.com and click on “volunteer,” or call Matthew Martin, Hopewell Valley chief of emergency services, at (609) 537-0287.