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Roving retirees

Seniors trade golf clubs for hammers to help Christian nonprofits

Roving retirees

(Photo by James Allen Walker for WORLD)

DENTON, Md.-In the rural flatlands of Eastern Maryland sits a 112-year-old, 100-acre Christian camp filled with rows of tiny white clapboard cabins that show their age. Some need to be repainted. Some need carpet ripped out. Some need toilets.

Grunts and demolition sounds come from inside one of the old cabins. Inside, three men over the age of 60 pry back boards and discover that termites have carved their own patterns into the wood. They rip out all the ruined wood and put in new sheetrock and trim. Their wives stop by one of the cabins the men already cleaned out-"It's ready to paint!" says one, with genuine delight.

The three couples are a team of retirees who arrived in their recreation vehicles (RVs) at the beginning of September to volunteer for a month at the Denton Wesleyan Camp. They serve through Roving Volunteers in Christ's Service (RVICS), which is based in Smithville, Texas. The 37-year-old organization sends its volunteers, all retirees, all over the country to work at Christian nonprofits.

Last year the organization's 150 or so volunteers served 67 different organizations-but RVICS has about 400 projects waiting in the wings, if only more retirees would join and serve. RVICS asks its members to serve at least three projects every year. When volunteers grow frail and infirm, they can move into the RVICS Village in Texas, a retirement community exclusively for former volunteers.

"We're old people," said Jeannette Dunmyer, 71, who leads the Maryland team with her husband, Ray. She and the other women had just finished their day of work and were chatting in her RV. "We're just all hyperactive." When the team members aren't on the road with RVICS, they volunteer in local nursing homes, work under car hoods, and generally stay busy.

"We didn't want to be put out to pasture," said Kathy Ball, 67, another member of the team.

"These people are crazy," said Fred Flatten, the caretaker of the camp, as he plopped into a chair outside the Dunmyer's RV, his shirt and hat both blazoned with bald eagles and American flags. He only had a few minutes to talk before heading off to work at the Christian school and retirement community next door. He complained good-naturedly that the RVICS volunteers were going to "work me out of a job."

The camp relies on the dollars of about 70 Wesleyan churches and on contributions of time from volunteers, like those of RVICS, who recognize that many Christian camps, schools, and other nonprofits are scraping to get by. RVICS president Gale Hickman is especially worried about the survival of these groups in the current economic climate. He told of one Christian school RVICS serves near Miami, Fla., that may close in the next two years because of falling enrollment.

The retirees know that their labors allow schools and camps to get down to the business of preaching, teaching, and ministering. "This is a second opportunity. We can do this for the Lord," said Ken Ball, 67, a volunteer on the team from Niagara Falls, N.Y., as he paused from the cabin renovation: "Otherwise we're wasting our life." He and his wife Kathy have been working with RVICS for nine years.

Mrs. Ball said her retired Christian friends think it's "nice" that she volunteers-nice for her, but not for them. But RVICS volunteers find a lot to enjoy out on the field. Their constant activity makes them feel younger. They travel the country, sometimes finding assignments within driving distance of relatives. Deep friendships form on the team after sitting around campfires all summer talking and talking. Every morning the team has devotions together.

"Sometimes it feels a little selfish," said "Big Ray" Dunmyer, 73, who used to work as a mason. Another volunteer, Ray Moody, 62, goes by "Little Ray" since he's younger. The places the team serves usually provide free hook-ups for water and electricity to the RVs, so aside from the cost of gas, the volunteers can live inexpensively. When gas spiked up to around $4 a gallon in 2008, Hickman said their volunteers still showed up to travel.

Sacrifices do have to be made here and there: Nonie Moody, 64, said they have to buy all "the little things" at Wal-Mart to fit the RV lifestyle. Jeannette gets homesick sometimes. They often have to wash clothes at the nearest laundromat, and once two of the men got their underwear mixed up when it was hanging on a line outside their RVs. "He's got the same kind as me," explained Big Ray, who ended up wearing his teammate's underwear.

These aren't muscled, protein-shake-drinking senior citizens in track suits. They look and act their age and everyone gets tired after each day of manual labor. Sometimes doing things the way the host organization wants them done can be frustrating-but Little Ray said that organizations often underestimate the amount of work they can do.

The women do anything from painting to sewing curtains to cleaning to washing dishes, depending on what they're good at. "I make it known that I am the world's worst painter," said Mrs. Ball. The men do all sorts of maintenance, construction, and demolition. They all work four days a week, but the men work six hours each day and the women three. They all receive equal pay: zero.

The road trips to reach assigned projects can demand a pioneering spirit. On the way to an assignment in California the Dunmyers used their GPS gadget for directions-they have a hard time reading signs-and ended up heading toward a mountain on a dirt road that turned into impassable mud. They couldn't turn around in the RV, so they had to back up a bit, then get a running start to speed over the mud to the top of the mountain. By then it was dark. They came across a lone store and asked the man there whether they were at Pillsbury Lake, their destination. He responded, "No, this is hell." They spent the night by the store and found their way in the morning.

"You leave it up to the Lord," said Big Ray, referring to that detour as their "mountaintop experience."

On the road, the team goes to whatever church is tied to their host: The volunteers come from different denominational backgrounds, but they want to worship together on the field. The Dunmyers listen to sermons as they drive. All have cell phones, and email lets them keep in touch with friends and churches back home.

Volunteers from a spectrum of denominations are united by "the saving blood and grace of Jesus," RVICS president Hickman said. The organization won't do projects for any group that is part of the World Council of Churches, which is theologically liberal.

Mrs. Ball, standing outside her RV, quotes Isaiah 52:7-"How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news"-and then chortles, "If it depended on my feet, no one would know the gospel, because they are not pretty." But that's exactly how the couples see their work: They may be retired, their health may ebb, and they may wish for more of life's comforts from time to time-but this calling makes perfect sense if, as several of them say, "everything you have comes from the Lord."

For more information on this year's Hope Award for Effective Compassion and to read profiles of other nominated organizations from this year and previous years, click here.

RVICS

Mission: To serve Christian organizations so staff members do not have to perform routine maintenance and repair work.

Requirements for volunteers: Believe in Jesus Christ-and have an RV, a desire to serve, sufficient finances, and health coverage.

Budget: $37,000 (2008), which covers bills for things like utilities and maintenance at the headquarters. No one at RVICS is paid.

Emily Belz

Emily Belz

Emily is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine based in New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emlybelz.