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Senior Corps: Helping West, Texas Recover

by Wendy Spencer

This week, the Corporation for National and Community Service, elected officials, and community leaders are marking the contributions of Senior Corps volunteers across the country. In fact, more than 40 governors have issued proclamations for Senior Corps Week.

Senior Corps taps the skills and experience of more than 360,000 Americans age 55 and over to meet a wide range of community needs through the Foster Grandparent Program, RSVP, and the Senior Companion Program.

Last week, as part of Older Americans Month, President Obama issued a proclamation that said, “Many seniors are using a lifetime of experience to serve those around them. Even after decades of hard work, men and women are taking on new roles after retirement—organizing, educating, innovating, and making sure they leave the next generation with the same opportunities they had. It is a commitment that shines brightly in programs like Senior Corps...”

One recent example of how Senior Corps is invaluable to a community comes from West, Texas, a town hit hard by a fertilizer plant explosion three weeks ago.

In this town of 2,800 residents, 15 died, nearly 210 individuals were injured, and nearly 200 structures, including homes, schools, a nursing facility, and an apartment complex, were destroyed or heavily damaged.

In the face of such tragedy, this community stepped up. And the response included heroic efforts by local Senior Corps volunteers and AmeriCorps members.

Yesterday, I joined Senior Corps Director Erwin Tan in travelling to West to see the response effort first hand. We were proud to learn that Heart of Texas RSVP is at the forefront of the recovery process.

Lana Donaghe manages the West Senior Center and its Meals on Wheels program. On the night of the explosion, Lana opened the center and stayed there all night, supporting survivors and first responders. Lana is proud that her RSVP volunteers were delivering meals just one day after the explosion, even though some had completely lost their homes. We heard this story over and over: RSVP volunteers rolling up their sleeves to help, even as they faced devastating loss.

This level of engagement from Senior Corps is not new. For more than 20 years, Heart of Texas RSVP has connected seniors to volunteer opportunities with local organizations. These volunteers serve the region’s large veteran population, deliver meals, provide low-income seniors help with taxes, and more.

After touring the blast site and the response effort, we joined West Mayor Tommy Muska to announce a new grant to nearly quadruple our annual investment in the Heart of Texas RSVP. This special one-time grant of $195,000 means tutors will support 450 at-risk students displaced from their schools after the explosion; volunteers will support 130 displaced nursing facility residents and their families; and a disaster volunteer center will be established to coordinate and engage citizens in the recovery over the next year.

Last month, President Obama assured the people of West that even after the cameras leave and attention turns elsewhere, we will not forget them. He said, “Your country will remain ever ready to help you recover and rebuild and reclaim your community.”

Senior Corps has been – and will continue to be – a vital part of that effort.

Wendy Spencer is CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service.

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