By BJ Kittredge
Covid-19 has meant weeks and then months of uncertainty. Today we’re being careful where we venture out. Some of us are homebound, and we’re maintaining a six-foot social distance and wearing masks for everyone’s safety. For senior activists, this is our Plan B at the moment. During this pandemic, this is our choice of activism, which brings us all to days and weeks of uncertainty.
While younger generations may not have withstood the ongoing stress and compromises of living during a crisis, seniors have. They have plenty of experience confronting crises and using creative problem-solving skills that summon the higher instincts of the human spirit. They have taken an active role when times get tough: tended to victory gardens, made do when there was little to go around, comforted those who lost loved ones to wars, gone to war themselves, protested, demonstrated, and most of all, shown up. They joined in spirit after witnessing the shock of Kennedy’s assassination on television. They held fast to our nation’s values when a president was exposed for committing acts of betrayal to the rule of law. After 9/11, they were there to help the thousands who lost loved ones and adapted to the new security requirements of traveling, doing what they had to do.
That takes character, integrity, patience, and persistence. And those qualities are what we need right now. If you’re looking for inspiration or a symbol of hope, here are five ordinary people — who just happen to be seniors — doing extraordinary things:
Lynn Holbein, of Newton, Massachusetts has been a lifelong activist. In 2005 she founded UU Mass Action to work for social justice. Its mission is to organize and mobilize Unitarian Universalists throughout the state to confront oppression. She worked for years to accomplish reform of mandatory minimum drug sentencing. Eventually, Massachusetts passed a sweeping prison reform bill.
Meanwhile, Lynn, an accomplished artist, recruited a friend to join her in teaching an art class in a men’s prison. It was to be an eight-week program. This year they started their eighteenth year of the classes. Now she has men in class who will be released early thanks to the legislation and the work she initiated with her church members.
On September 11, 2001, Ram Singal was on the sixty-fourth floor in the north tower when the plane hit. He is a professional engineer who helped to design the structural integrity inspections for that tower of the World Trade Center. Then he trained the people who were responsible for conducting those inspections. He was uniquely informed to be able to help others evacuate during the collapse of the building.
Three years later, he conceived an idea: if so few people could accomplish such devastation, what could seven billion (the estimated world population at the time) people performing acts of goodness accomplish? This non-sectarian program is found online at www.actsofgoodness.org. Now, nearly seventy, Ram Singal travels the world dedicated to acts of goodness and to making a positive difference.
It was a post-college summer vacation in Europe that expanded Cathy Scherer’s geographic point of view. Marriage took her to Germany as an Air Force officer’s wife and the mother of two children. Exploring new destinations, discovering new cultures, meeting the people who lived in those places planted the seed that would bear a budding internationalist. After her divorce, Ms. Scherer stayed ten years in Germany with her kids. When she returned to the U.S., she made a career with a consulting firm that groomed expatriates to work and assimilate into foreign cultures.
She wrote two books about business in a global environment. Her commitment includes helping kids realize that they are part of a vast international community. With her second husband, Ms. Scherer wrote a series of children’s books, which showed kids what it was like to live in another country. The stories were told by a dog and his partner — an operatic canary. She also established a partnership between Old Dominion University and a small private school where she implements a program between international university students and middle school students who come to know them. Her goal is peace, learned person-to-person.
Bob Groves’ professional career usually meant that he would assume executive positions in the public health field. Leading the Health Promotion Council in Philadelphia, he pioneered “health literacy” to advance public health knowledge among underserved populations. In “retirement,” Mr. Groves became active in the local United Nations Association. Thus began the creation of an OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute) course at Temple University called Human Rights in the 21st Century. It is regularly over-subscribed. At 70, it follows a natural progression in a lifetime of activism.
His very full schedule means that Gilbert Kliman, MD, is either treating children and doing research or serving as an expert witness in a courtroom, testifying about traumatized children and adolescents. His work takes him from his office in San Francisco to various locales in North and South America. Flying his own plane makes his travel efficient and allows him to go where he is needed on a very flexible flight schedule.
He is uncommonly devoted to the plight of children in distress. Now in his early 90s, Dr. Kliman has amassed an entire compendium of research-based resources for the treatment of suffering children and forensic protocols to help them recover from severe trauma. He has generously assembled references, online seminars, and used technology to preserve and transmit what he has learned to those who will follow him. His work will survive him and will progress as more knowledge is added that can help these children.
There are everyday role models among us — seldom high-profile, mostly unsung, but determined to change the world. To observe them broadens our vision and stretches our reach. And right now, they give us the hope we need.
BJ Kittredge is a retired consultant to the healthcare industry. She began her career as a public school teacher and curriculum developer. She was the first Director of Training and Development in the member services division of US Healthcare, and was involved in management and IT training, communications, and performance evaluation systems. With Dr. Thelma Reese, she is the co-author of the new book, How Seniors Are Saving the World: Retirement Activism to the Rescue!