Boomers Stepping up to Change the World, Again

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4min 14sec

A lot of people have heard of Americorps, the national service program where young people can earn college funding in return for a year of work.
Less well known is that there's no upper age limit on Americorps. In Denver, baby boomers are signing up to help with health care. CPR Health Reporter Eric Whitney has more.

CPR Health Reporter Eric Whitney: In Aurora, a couple of blocks south of Colfax on Yosemite, there are some big, blocky apartment buildings. On the sidewalks outside, women in brightly colored dresses and headscarves pass by, some push strollers. Many are refugees from the Himalayan countries of Nepal and Bhutan.

In the basement community room of one of the apartment buildings, about eight are working on their English. After class, Americorps volunteer Arlin Raedeke sweeps in. He offers help applying for free dental exams. Everybody's interested.

Arlin Raedeke We will find -- I will have a list of dentists.

Reporter: With help from a translator, Raedeke explains they’ll have to fill out and send in an application. Then they should get a letter back.The refugees want to know where the dentists are, which bus to take. Raedeke explains that comes later, after the paperwork, and that he'll be around to help when the time comes.

Raedeke joined Americorps specifically to help disadvantaged people navigate what he calls America's “broken” health care system. He says paperwork from social service agencies can be mind-boggling.

Raedeke: Totally indecipherable. You had to have to been a Philadelphia lawyer to understand what the hell they were saying. Those folks had no idea what they were reading, whether they won or lost, it was almost impossible to tell.

Reporter: At age 71, Raedeke is a little older than the generation born right after World War II, but he identifies with the baby boomers, and their social consciousness. He says it's not going away as they reach retirement age.

Raedeke: I think the boomers do have that sense of community service, I believe there is an intent and a desire to give back.

Reporter: Barbara Raynor is trying to tap into that desire. She runs the Denver non-profit called Boomers Leading Change in Health. It got $300,000 from the governor’s office to train Americorps volunteers to help people stay healthy, or to become health system navigators like Radeke.

Rarbara Raynor: There's this misconception out there that baby boomers are basically a drain on society, they're going to bankrupt Medicare, and all sorts of negative images about baby boomers. When in fact throughout our lives we've contributed a great deal to move society forward, and we're not going to stop getting involved in activities that improve our community.

Reporter: Raynor's group does more than contract with Americorps. It’s part of a nine- state project to make flower-children-turned-grandparents into volunteers. Other groups are tackling homelessness and education.

In Denver, Raynor holds trainings like this one to help boomers change health care.

Raynor (at training): Or maybe you're mad as hell and don't want to take it anymore and want to be a policy advocate. That's what our first volunteer - she called me and basically that's what she said...

Reporter: Raynor helps connect boomers who are mad as hell to health advocacy groups, but they’re a minority. Most Boomers Leading Change in Health do more hands-on work. Americorps funds about a quarter of those kinds of positions. Part of the funding covers $1,000 monthly stipends for full-time volunteers -- and health insurance, which Raynor says can be a pretty strong incentive.

Raynor: Because a lot of boomers who've retired early, and got their insurance through their employer, are faced with the challenge of either having to buy their own health insurance before they get to be Medicare eligible, or go without, and obviously that's not a great alternative for boomers, as they're aging.

Reporter: Americorps also offers about $5,000 in college tuition credit, which can also be transferred to kids or grandkids.

Ernestine Parker came to a recent Boomers Leading Change training. Afterwards, she said younger people should start getting more involved, too.

Parker: ...because they won't always be 35, you won't always be 25. And you'll be here. I know I was going to be 35 forever, and today look, I'm 36.

Reporter: So far Boomers Leading Change in Health has trained just over a hundred volunteers in Denver. Funding for the Americorps positions runs through next fall.

[Photo: CPR/Eric Whitney]