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AARP helps seniors find steady jobs

Some people without adequate savings must continue working long past retirement age. The AARP Foundation Senior Community Service Employment helps Americans 55 years and older get the training they need to secure better-paying jobs. 

Alex Driehaus/AP
Sharon Edmonds folds towels at Changes City Spa in Norfolk, Va. Ms. Edmonds was placed at the salon through the AARP Foundation's Senior Community Service Employment Program, which helps Americans 55 years or older find steady employment.

They call her "Miss Sharon." For nearly a year, she has worked at Changes City Spa in the Ghent neighborhood of Norfolk, Va., where she spends much of her time doing laundry – towels, robes, and smocks, among other things.

She makes a little bit more than the minimum wage, works a 40-hour week, and walks to and from her job, which is about a mile or so from where she lives with her daughter and her family on Colley Avenue: "I'm like the mailman – rain, sleet or snow, I'm getting to my job."

For decades, Sharon Edmonds, who is 64, found work as a nanny or making beds in hotels or helping cater parties in the food-service industry.

But she was never able to save, needing every dollar she earned. She never gave a thought to retirement.

Last August, she got her foot in the door at the Norfolk spa with the help of an AARP Foundation "Senior Community Service Employment Program," which funded her two-week training program and set the stage for her full-time gig.

The money she earns now, along with Social Security, which she began collecting two years ago, has enabled her – for the first time in her life – to get routine medical care, things like mammograms.

"I'm at the point in my life now that – I'm there," Ms. Edmonds said. "I can handle what I have to handle now."

Edmonds is one of nearly 100 people who found permanent jobs over the past year through the local AARP Foundation program, which seeks to help the most vulnerable people in the aging population find steady employment.

"They have very little," said Barbara Murphy, project director of the Norfolk-based program, one of 83 like it in 15 states nationwide and Puerto Rico.

While it's well known that laid off or displaced older workers in their late 50s or early 60s can struggle to find jobs that pay as well as those they once had, the individuals Ms. Murphy's program tries to help generally have no pension, 401(k), or savings of any kind.

Funded by a Department of Labor grant through the Washington-based AARP Foundation, the local program helps those 55 and over who – as individuals – make no more than $15,175. The income limit for a family of two is $20,575.

Murphy has an annual budget of about $900,000, with which she's able to provide what is essentially paid internships to qualified workers who are then positioned to compete for permanent jobs at workplaces such as Bon Secours DePaul Medical Center, Old Dominion University, Goodwill, and the city of Norfolk.

"It runs the gamut from custodial people to people with master's degrees," Murphy said. "We serve everyone."

Working out of her Norfolk main office – with satellite offices in Newport News and Suffolk – Murphy has an "enrollment level" of 132 people at any given time, meaning she can have that many workers employed temporarily at area nonprofit agencies for 20 hours a week, at minimum wage.

Her program pays the workers during the initial trial period, enabling them to get a current work record and to develop needed skills.

A big part of what the AARP Foundation program provides are basic computer skills, enabling one to apply for jobs.

"It is a big deal – it is the biggest obstacle," Murphy said. "Nobody accepts paper applications anymore; everything has to be done online."

While younger people have grown up with computers and are used to them, older workers can be intimidated and most need one-on-one support, which Murphy's program can provide or direct them to.

Another hurdle, in some cases, is basic transportation, meaning that scouting out a potential job placement can entail researching bus routes and schedules.

"One of our challenges is a lot of our people do not have cars," Murphy added.

That's not always the case, however.

Five days a week, Christeen E. Capehart, who is 82, drives from her Chesapeake senior complex to her job at Bon Secours DePaul Medical Center in Norfolk in her 2006 Honda. She's been at the facility since 2009, when Murphy's program placed her there, enabling her to eventually land a full-time job as part of the cleaning staff.

Ms. Capehart makes $12.50 an hour and works 37.5 hours a week, which is considered full-time.

It's not her first job. She worked at PeoplesDrug Store for 38 years before it closed in the early 1980s, long enough for her to save a few thousand dollars in a 401(k) plan and to get a $1,000-plus severance.

Between what she's been able to save and what she gets from Social Security, Capehart said her decision to stay on the job isn't so much about needing the money as wanting to work and feeling engaged.

"It's important to me that I feel within myself I'm helping somebody, I'm doing something," she said. "I'm not just sitting down, twiddling my thumbs. I'm out there trying to help somebody that needs help."

Murphy, who has worked at the AARP Foundation program for 35 years, said she hears that a lot from the people she tries to help.

"I get that from a lot of them – 'I want to work,' " she said, adding that she feels that way herself.

Originally from New York, she moved to Hampton Roads 45 years ago with her then-husband, who was in the military.

Eventually a single mom with two kids, she went to night school at ODU for more than a decade before earning her undergraduate degree in 1980. Two decades later, she received a master's in public administration from ODU as well. So when people experiencing rough times encounter her, she can say that she's been there.

"Don't give up," she said. "If you feel you can contribute, you know, keep at it. We're all going to have people close doors on us. But keep at it, keep going. You know, knock on another door."

This story was reported by The Associated Press. 

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