Program draws elderly into work force


The phone is ringing and Lillian Ross, finally having found a quiet room in the Florence Bain Senior Center in which to do her paperwork, is interrupted again.

It's yet another taste of life in a modern office for Ms. Ross, 69, who works six hours a day, four days a week at the county's Office on Aging, courtesy of Green Thumb Inc., an employment and training program for seniors.

Through the Green Thumb program, Ms. Ross, an Ellicott City resident, is gaining work experience as coordinator of the Senior Entertainment and Arts Ticket Service, located at the center in Columbia.

She is one of 14 Howard County seniors participating in the 28-year-old program, funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Labor.

"I think Green Thumb is a terrific program," Ms. Ross said. "The program opens the doors for the rest of us, so that we can prove, regardless of our age, that we are still capable of doing a top-notch job."

Green Thumb was started in 1965 by the National Farmers' Union, a national organization dedicated to preserving the family farm and improving rural America.

Originally funded by President Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty," it was intended to improve the social and economic conditions of older Americans and to provide community services.

When it began, it put the "green thumbs" of older Americans to work on the nation's parks and highways, according to the program's literature.

Today, 44 states and Puerto Rico participate in the federally funded program, which pays seniors for community service work.

"We identify income-eligible persons and provide on-the-job training for potential employment opportunities," said Karen Curran, area supervisor for the western part of the state, which includes a portion of Baltimore City and Howard, Carroll, Charles, Frederick and Washington counties.

The enrollees, as they are called, must be at least 55 years old and earn no more than $725 per month for a one-person household and $982 per month for a two-person household.

They are placed in government or nonprofit organizations for on-the-job training and work about 20 hours a week, earning $4.25 per hour.

The employees are paid directly by the Green Thumb program.

The 14 enrollees currently serve in seven agencies and organizations in Howard County.

They include: the Howard County Office on Aging; the Howard County Department of Parks and Recreation, located in Ellicott City; the Department of Economic and Employment Development; the Social Security Administration; the Winter Growth Adult Day Care facility; and the Urban Rural Transportation Alliance.

"Our enrollees are independent people and they want to stay independent, live creative lives, and to be taken seriously in the workplace," Ms. Curran said. "Often, they are filling positions in the host agencies that are open because of budget cuts."

Ms. Curran said the community benefits because the government and nonprofit organizations can continue to provide services, she said.

The educational background of the workers ranges from third grade to a doctoral degree, and their work experience also is varied.

The job-training positions in the host agencies consist mostly of receptionists and clerical workers. Other enrollees work as custodians, assist agency department heads and work as aides at community centers, including Winter Growth and the Florence Bain center.

In theory, the training program lasts about a month, although in practice, many enrollees remain in their positions for longer than that, before securing permanent jobs at the host agency or with private business.

"Originally the Green Thumb program was filling community service positions in a volunteer capacity," Ms. Curran said.

But in the past six or seven years, the focus has changed to finding permanent employment for the enrollees, clearing the way for others to take their places in the training program.

"We don't ever throw someone out of the system because they have been in job training too long," Ms. Curran said.

But if workers remain trainees in their host agency and are never tTC hired permanently, "There's no point to the program," she said.

Ms. Curran estimated that about two people each year have been placed in permanent jobs during the past four years.

She is trying to find placements for at least four enrollees per year.

Senior citizens bring many advantages to the workplace, including experience and adaptability, she said.

"The work ethic is strong," she said. "They show up on time and they put in a hard day's work. Enrollees enjoy learning and they bring a calmness and stability to the workplace, because they don't fluster easily."

And she said that while some older workers may be slower than younger employees, the seniors strive for quality rather than speed, understanding the importance of detail and following through on a task.

"They are not 'loose cannons,' " she said. "Seniors are a lot more cautious about what they do, and it is very important to them to do a good job."

Further information on the Green Thumb program is available by calling Ms. Curran at 313-9817.

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