When I retired in 2001, at age 53, I looked forward to having plenty of time to travel and relax, without the burden of a schedule and obligations. After spending the bulk of my career as a management consultant on the road — 150 days a year — I was ready for a serious break.
But after two years of leisure, I began to feel something was missing.
I needed to find a passion, something that would get me out of bed in the morning and eager to start the day. I was wrestling with these questions: Without work, who was I? What meaning could I bring to my life? How could I use my skills to help someone else?
How My Life's Focus Changed
Then my church in Scottsdale, Ariz., invited me to participate in one of its programs: writing letters to several men incarcerated in state prisons. These fellows were looking for friendship, someone to care about them, and help support them in their faith. I agreed, and my life’s focus began to change.
I quickly found that I enjoyed contacting the inmates and helping them feel less alone, and within a few months this feeling grew into a passion. I was using my talents to communicate in a way that made these men feel wanted and important to someone else, while making myself feel good in the process.
I decided to pursue this passion further, mentoring just-released prisoners through a Phoenix-based ministry organization, Along Side Ministries. This meant phoning each one several times a week, getting together with them at least once a week, providing rides to doctor appointments or food shopping, and helping the inmates work through the challenges they face when they rejoin society.
An Intimidating Start
As you might imagine, becoming involved with these men was rather intimidating at first.
My image of inmates was shaped by movies and popular culture. I assumed them to be hardened, violent and bitter. But the more time I spent getting to know them, the more I realized this image had little to do with reality.
In many cases, their family life had been a mess, with drunken mothers, absent fathers and some form of abuse. Most of the men had been involved with drugs. But they were deeply committed to changing themselves.
I felt compelled to do more. So I started to regularly visit men in the state prisons in Florence and Buckeye, Ariz. This personal contact and demonstration of commitment gave several of them something they’d never had: a male friend who wanted to help them succeed.
The first time I went behind the barbed wire and prison gates was terrifying.
Being in the midst of thousands of men in orange jumpsuits and guards with guns was a world completely alien to anything I had ever known. Although there were many rules intended to keep me safe, I was warned that if there was a riot or breakout attempt, I wouldn’t be allowed to leave until control had been established.
Amazingly, once inside the prison, I lost my fear.
The inmates greeted me with more courtesy than I would encounter in line at the supermarket. I was working with men who had been screened, interviewed and accepted into the Along Side Ministries program; each had a powerful determination to fix what was wrong in his life and to never return once released.
A New Retirement Commitment
Recently, I've taken on another commitment for Along Side Ministries. I've begun making monthly trips to a prison almost 200 miles from my home to spend 60 minutes with one man who has no family or friends, and little outside support. I am his only link to a better life. Once he is released and begins living at the Along Side Ministries housing facility, I’ll be his mentor, helping him rejoin the world outside the prison walls.
I couldn't have predicted that this desire to work with society’s outcasts would grab me so completely. But it happened because I took a big step out of my comfort zone, and my life will never be the same. I have truly found my retirement passion: making a difference to others.
I’m pleased to say that each of the three released men I have mentored has made a successful transition back into society. And the guys I work with who are still incarcerated give every indication that they will never spend another day behind bars.
My Advice to You
If you are searching for volunteer opportunities in retirement, I think the first step is to honestly assess your skills and talents. Then, using your strengths as a starting point, look for ways to better someone else’s life and take the next step forward.
Make a commitment of time and energy. If your volunteering choice doesn’t work out, try something else until you find the ideal situation. You’ll know it when you do.
I’ve learned through my prison volunteering work that there is no feeling greater than using your abilities to help make another life better. Your retirement will become deeper, richer and a lot more satisfying if you do the same. Trust me.