Red Cross program offers retraining and placement for seniors

Until September of this year, Delores Woolsey had never worked primarily at a desk in front of a computer.

"I used to work on my feet in hospitals, but now my health doesn't allow me to do that," she said.

Woolsey, 64, is in the process of retraining for a desk job as part of the American Red Cross' Senior Work Experience Project.

The program, abbreviated SWEP, works to give basic job training to seniors and place them with a nonprofit or state-funded agency in Sedgwick or a surrounding county. The program is funded by the Kansas Department of Human Resources and the U.S. Department of Labor.

"We train seniors 55 and up who are looking to get back into the work force," said James Williams, public relations manager for the Midway-Kansas chapter of the Red Cross.

"We have a huge stack of people wanting to work. Ironically, our biggest need is partnering agencies to send them to."

The participants are considered employees of the Red Cross and are matched with a nonprofit agency where they volunteer their time. However, they are paid by the Red Cross while they complete their training.

Williams described the relationship between the senior and the host agency as similar to an internship.

"We are trying to get people in the door at these agencies in hopes of finding them permanent work," Williams said.

With the Red Cross taking on most of the cost of training and finding the employees, Williams said he is surprised that they are having trouble placing the applicants at a time when many companies are facing layoffs and budget cuts.

"In a group of 130 area nonprofits, more than 60 of them included on their holiday wish lists a need for volunteers," Williams said. "We're providing paid volunteers, and we're also training them."

Woolsey splits her time

between training and completing office tasks at Starkey Inc., a local nonprofit agency that helps people with intellectual disabilities. Starkey has hosted a SWEP worker since 2003.

"Each individual has done a variety of things for us, including filing and office work," said Jamie Opat, director of communications for Starkey. "We don't have the resources for a large office, records or administration staff. It has been a huge help to have them here."

Woolsey said she is hoping that this experience will help her find a job once her time in the SWEP program is complete. The average participant is involved with the program for around 27 months.

"I turn 65 in May," Woolsey said. "I don't have to work full time or have a high-paying job. It's just hard to live on retirement alone."

Williams said the program helped find permanent jobs for 32 participants last year while training more than 200 individuals and donating more than 100,000 hours of community service.

"In tough economic times, everybody needs to look out for each other," Williams said. "We have lots of people really trying to get involved with this program, we just want to connect them."