The ink on the thank-you notes from Jack Berenz’s retirement party was barely dry before he happened into his encore career. A new retiree in the spring of 1997, Jack was enjoying some time at home. His job as a pharmaceutical salesman had kept him on the road day after day, town after town, night after night.
However, his short-lived leisure time was interrupted when, a few days into his retirement, the Red River flooded, affecting North Dakota, Manitoba, and Jack’s home state of Minnesota. The damage totaled $3.5 billion and the flooding lasted for eight weeks. While he wasn’t personally impacted, Jack’s county become home to evacuees who needed shelter after being displaced from the most significant flooding in the area since 1826.
Never one to sit around when others needed a hand, Jack pitched in with various tasks to help the county’s new temporary residents, some of whom only had a few comforts of home with them. Weeks later, one of the last jobs to be completed as the relief effort wound down and life returned to normal was to deliver two semi trailers full of leftover food to the local food pantry. Jack was handed the keys and he delivered the food. From there he started volunteering at the food pantry; by 1999, he was named the full-time Director of the Becker County Food Pantry.
While he doesn’t draw a salary, Jack’s responsibly at the food pantry carries all the weight of a full-time job and then some. The pantry feeds over 250 people a week and Jack puts in over 100 hours a month to make sure this happens. Jack is on the road by 7 a.m. sharp. He is involved in transporting thousands of pounds of food and boxes for distribution, often in his own vehicle. He maintains relationships with several area businesses, enabling him to get donations of day-old baked goods and perishables. “I look forward to getting up every morning at 6 a.m. and getting things done,” he told me from his Detroit Lakes home after a full day of work at the pantry. “If you are a people person at all, you know there are some people out there who don’t have it as good as you do; helping people is what it is all about.”
Jack is on the cutting edge of a new trend, the encore career, where people retire only to reinvent themselves and take on new paid or volunteer responsibilities. As visions flooded my mind of my grandfather and great-grandfather puttering around during retirement with hobbies like photography and trying new local restaurants, it was obvious that this isn’t my grandfather’s retirement. The heck if the generation that challenged and changed all of the political and social rules isn’t going to redefine retirement now!
Jack, who is also a veteran, is an example of someone who took on an entirely different career in retirement than the one he fed his family and put kids through college with. Not surprisingly, some individuals in the middle of an encore career are finding the same challenges balancing it all that they did during their traditional careers. Some are caregivers to ill parents, have taken on significant childcare duties for grandchildren, or have disagreements with spouses about how much time to give to their new career paths. Some of the same old battles can emerge with a new twist.
Luckily, Jack still finds time to do the things that he expected to do during his retirement years. He spends time with his grandchildren, gets in a round of golf occasionally, has coffee with friends, and travels with his wife, Rose. He has even managed to squeeze in a few hunting trips to Canada, Wyoming, and Russia. “I have a great team of dedicated of volunteers at the food pantry that love to work together to help people,” Jack said. “They are the reason that this job can fit into my life.”
Jack’s retirement reinvention as a nonprofit director doesn’t surprise Diana Algra, Executive Director of the Volunteer Centers of Michigan. She chatted with me on a snowy Michigan day about the value retirees reap when they volunteer for their favorite causes or work for a stipend. “More and older volunteers are looking for fulfilling opportunities to contribute to their community,” Diana explained. “They see things that aren’t working and they want to be a part of the solution. They make their communities better places to live, not to mention that the socialization benefits that they receive are priceless to their physical and mental health.”
Royal Oak resident Ilene Orlanski didn’t have to go far to start her encore performance. Ilene retired from the Alzheimer’s Association Greater Michigan Chapter, where she served as the Respite Director, but she said that she didn’t think of retirement in the traditional sense. She came back to work part-time as the Public Policy Director and then the Volunteer Coordinator for the chapter. Her encore career is on the same stage because she loves the organization and saw a niche to fill. She said she enjoys the creativity that her new role allows. “I couldn’t walk away completely because I saw a need,” she exclaimed. “However, my part-time role gives me the flexibility to travel, take on projects, and enjoy time with family and friends.”
Florine Anchordoguy retired four years ago at age 64 and wasted no time pursuing what she knew was going to be her passion. She had always wanted to help save homeless pets, but she had never volunteered for an animal rescue before. A northern California transplant to Arizona, Florine viewed finding her encore career path as an experiment. She researched, networked, and then connected with the Lost Our Home Pet Foundation in Scottsdale, Arizona. Florine felt that the overall mission of the group spoke to her. Lost Our Home works with families and realtors to rescue and re-home pets displaced by foreclosure and eviction. They also provide temporary housing for pets while displaced owners look for pet-friendly housing.
Since 2008, Lost Our Home rescued more than 2,000 cats and dogs and fed about 8,500 more, allowing the pets to remain with their families. Florine has been a big part of that success. She started by assisting with cleaning duties and now organizes a group of volunteers overseeing adoptions at a local Petsmart. She has seen situations at their worst, as pets abandoned in a house with no food or water patiently wait for their family to return, and at their best. She has opened her home to foster over 50 pets herself. “We rescue animals where we are their last hope; they are scared confused and abandoned and we get them healthy and adopted into new homes,” Florine told me after a full day of pet adoptions. “I still get Christmas cards, updates, and pictures throughout the year of the happy endings that Lost Our Home is responsible for creating. This line of work makes me happy and it is very rewarding.”
While Florine was lucky enough to have a clear vision of what her calling was, not everyone retires with a picture in mind of what their encore will entail. Maci Alboher, author of, The Encore Career Handbook: How to Make a Living and a Difference in the Second Half of Life, has some advice for those who may be floundering. She told me that people work through transitions differently and they need to give themselves time to wander around, take some detours and permission to get lost on the way to finding out what is next. “You may already know how you want to use your time. Or you may need to figure that out,” Marci said. “Either way, expect that it will take some time to get there. Craft a process to give yourself that time — and space — to think, plan, and try things out.”
Carrie Collins-Fadell is the Executive Director of the United Way of Cayuga County. This article originally appeared in the February 2013 Best of Aging print edition