Program taps rich resource of leadership

The Baltimore Sun

In the past few years, Ken Nibali has refurbished a Victorian home in Catonsville, spent time house sitting in the Virgin Islands, played lots of golf and spoiled his grandchildren.

After 31 years at the Social Security Administration, such a diverse leisure schedule seemed a great transition to a new stage of life.

"But after several years of just enjoying that stuff, you say 'Daggone it, what next?'" Nibali says. "I don't know if it's just our generation, but when you move out of regular employment -- I don't like the word retirement -- you miss that feeling that you're contributing and doing something meaningful. That led me to look at how I might get back involved in things and still keep my freedom."

Now the 59-year-old West Friendship resident works two days a week for Del. Gail H. Bates, a Howard County Republican, helping with constituents, researching legislation and attending hearings.

Nibali took that job after completing a program at the University of Maryland, College Park designed for Marylanders age 50 and older looking to this seemed like a good way to get some experience working in the legislature.

Started six years ago by the university's Center on Aging, the Legacy Leadership Institute on Public Policy instructs participants about Maryland and its government. Known as Legacy Leaders, they serve as unpaid interns for members of the Maryland General Assembly.

The program is part of a growing national drive to introduce 78 million aging baby boomers to the satisfactions of pro bono work.

The U.S. Census Bureau projects there will be 40 million Americans age 65 and older by 2011. As that figure continues to rise, so will the available pool of retired people with untapped wisdom, skills and leadership.

Laura Wilson, director of the University of Maryland's Center on Aging and chair of the Health Services Administration, is among those figuring out how to harness that potential. She began developing the institute model almost 10 years ago.

"One of our goals is to demonstrate what the capacity of people over the age of 50 is," Wilson said recently to a gathering of Legacy Leader interns. This year's group is composed of 34 retired or semi-retired Marylanders with backgrounds in the federal government, education, social work, law, business and health care.

Last fall, they attended 80 hours of classes, scheduled two days a week, at the University of Maryland, College Park. They also learned about the legislature from guest speakers including a historian, legislators, judges and state agency leaders.

Next they were matched with senators and delegates to work part-time during the legislative session. Assignments include constituent work, researching bills, helping to arrange hearings and preparing for news conferences.

Like a job contract

Unlike most volunteer opportunities, the Legacy Leadership Institute program selects its participants based upon applications, references and interviews. Upon acceptance, participants pay $100 to defray the cost of reading material. They also sign a "memorandum of understanding" saying they will work with their assigned legislator for the duration of the session. Such procedures make commitment to the institute feel more like a job contract, Wilson says, just as the title of "legacy leader" fits participants' vision of their unpaid role more aptly than "volunteer."

Randa Deacon, a 52-year-old social worker who works part-time in community outreach in East Baltimore, welcomes the chance to intern for Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Baltimore City Democrat.

"I think everyone should have a chance to go through this, if just to reinvigorate your belief in democracy," she says. "This is the kind of thing I imagined I might do when I was in college, and I would definitely be interested in looking for similar work opportunities."

Freelance writer Mark Travaglini, a former federal employee, works with Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George's Democrat. Recently, the 60-year-old intern helped with a news conference where Pinsky and Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Howard Democrat, announced an effort opposing President Bush's plan to send more troops to Iraq.

"I'm a political junkie to a certain extent and this seemed like a good way to get some experience working in the legislature," Travaglini says. "I'm impressed with the caliber of the people here, with their commitment to the state and to their constituents."

Since the first Legacy Leadership Institute was held in 2001, the University of Maryland has created others on subjects ranging from fundraising for nonprofits to using humor to advance health practices.

The Legacy Leadership Institute on the Environment in Grasonville is in its fourth year and receives support from the Environmental Protection Agency. Habitat for Humanity is partnering with UM to recruit and train volunteers for disaster response and management on its projects in New Orleans.

In addition to her work in the state, Wilson also directs RSVP International, an organization that promotes volunteering for people 50 and over globally. She has helped set up Legacy Leadership institutes in the Netherlands and Germany and says elements of the model are used in Slovenia, Italy, Finland and Switzerland.

Hoped-for results

There are roughly 2,500 institute graduates, Wilson says. Some return to their former programs to help administer them or serve as mentors while others find employment in other nonprofit organizations.

Wilson, who is also a baby boomer, explains the institute model in Civic Engagement and the Baby Boom Generation: Research, Policy and Practice Perspectives (The Haworth Press, $29.95), a book she edited with fellow University of Maryland professor Sharon Simson. Among her findings are the following:

Almost 40 percent of boomers want to continue education post retirement.

"Retired" people will cycle in and out of the work force, changing the definition of work and leisure.

Boomers want to replace the community of colleagues they had at their former employment for another network of people with whom they can share similar work-related goals and activities.

Boomers are less likely to consider working with programs using the words "senior," "older adult" and "retiree."

Boomers may associate the word "volunteer" with someone who has "low value" and "lesser status."

They would be more likely to volunteer if there were clearly identified roles that used their expertise while allowing them to learn new things.

"The future generation of 50-plus volunteers will expect and demand more from their volunteer experience," Wilson writes. "They expect to be part of the decision-making process. They want flexibility that allows them to integrate paid and unpaid work. They seek engagement in meaningful opportunities similar to those offered to paid staff. They are motivated to transfer their professional skills to impact local community needs."

Ken Nibali might add that they also like to keep their options open.

"I'm the type of person who likes to do something because it's meaningful and helpful, but also because I'm interested to find out where it might lead," he says. "I don't know yet what will come from this experience in Annapolis. I do know, and I don't mean to sound hokey, that it has led me to be a more informed citizen. It's shown me how to be more involved in state and local issues -- if I choose to be."

linell.smith@baltsun.com

For more information about the Legacy Leadership Institute programs, e-mail Laura Wilson at lwilson@umd.edu.

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