Finding fulfillment, giving back

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By Brian Goslow

BOSTON —

Dan Suratt, 67, of Wellesley, left the corporate world in 2005 after a career in specialty large-asset financial products. He sold equipment for manufacturing plants. After living in Connecticut for many years — as well as London and Tokyo for work-related reasons — he moved to the Boston area to be closer to family in 2006.

He joined SOAR 55 about a year after moving here. “In the corporate world, it was about profits; now it’s time to do good,” Suratt said. “I had a need for intellectual challenges and stimulation and a need for social interaction, community and challenges with other people — and in doing the projects SOAR 55 gives me, I get all that.”

The goal of SOAR 55 (Service Opportunities After Reaching 55) is “to mobilize adults … to contribute their skills and experience in meaningful service activities to help strengthen and expand the capacity of local community service organizations.” It is part of the RSVP Volunteer Network of the Corporation for National and Community Service. The 41-year-old organization is based at Family Access of Newton and serves the towns of Ashland, Framingham, Natick, Newton, Wayland, Wellesley and Weston.

Suratt volunteers as a pro-bono consultant with SOAR 55’s Nonprofit Management Consulting Group Program, using his decades of learned knowledge to help non-profit organizations with their marketing plans and strategic planning. “I find this is part of the attraction for me, that I can use the skills I’ve got,” said Suratt, adding he’s proud to be able to offer his abilities — that include knowing how to work with and read people — to a team of individuals who are working towards the desired result.

SOAR 55’s senior director, Jan Latorre-Stiller, has worked with the organization for 22 years. During that time, she’s overseen a huge shift in the volunteer opportunities it offers. “There were many people coming in with high-level, professional management skills that wanted to use them (in a volunteer capacity),” she said. Since 2006, SOAR 55 has trained over 100 people to serve as pro-bono consultants; they’re done projects for more than 50 organizations since that time.

SOAR 55 — which mainly works with non-profits — conducts data gathering, assesses the needs of the agency, then develops a strategic marketing plan, said Latorre-Stiller. “I’m not saying all non-profits — but a good number of them are run by people that are very passionate and vision-oriented and had a great idea, but some of them lacked the skills to run an organization on the same business level that is needed to run an organization,” Latorre-Stiller said. “You don’t want to be flailing when you have limited resources. You want to use these resources the most effective way you can.”

Latorre-Stiller estimated that 40 percent of SOAR 55’s current volunteers are in the process of transitioning from full-time positions while remaining in the workplace at some level.

“Part of that is financial and part of it is that people are just feeling better physically and feel like 65 is too young to retire,” she said. “They bring these amazing skills and a higher level of education and talents, and as a result, we began to shift the types of volunteer opportunities that would be available to this type of volunteer.”

Suratt’s first assignment was to work with two other SOAR 55 volunteers on a needs assessment study for a burgeoning Village Community (a client confidentiality agreement forbids him for sharing its name) on how it could best serve its senior residents. “The organization was set up to help people as they get older and help them stay in their own homes and cope,” Suratt said.

“We contacted all of the Villages around the country for data gathering purposes,” he said. The volunteers looked at such things as recreation, physical fitness activities, cultural event planning and ways a Village could help individuals of advanced age find proper housing. The three volunteers then utilized all that information to compile statistical data and make suggestions on what kind of programs should be offered.

Most of the SOAR-assigned programs that Suratt has worked on have lasted six months. “Working with these people is enormously rewarding because you’re working with a group to solve a problem,” he said. A key benefit is the team framework. They’re educated, reasonable people with long careers that came to a decision that this is what they wanted to do.

Not only has his SOAR 55 efforts allowed him to continue to use his professional skills, it’s also led to lasting friendships with some of the other volunteers. “Every few months, with one of the groups I worked with, we have dinner parties or we go out for lunch,” Suratt said. He also learned that another member of a group was, like him, interested in long-distance road biking. “We regularly go for 20-to-40 mile bike rides.”

After earning her master’s degree in education from the University of Michigan, Barbara Fay, 74, spent 10 years as a teacher in the Framingham school system. When her children were old enough to begin looking towards college themselves, she moved onto the business world for two decades, working at Prime Computers, Computer Vision and Tufts Health Plan before taking time off to help raise her grandchildren.

“I then went back into education and worked in the Sudbury School System, probably for eight years and then retired, and I’ve been retired ever since,” Fay said.

That doesn’t mean her days as an educator ended on that day. One day, after working out at her local gym, she noticed a poster on its bulletin board about volunteering for SOAR 55. She called the director and soon was taking informational classes — then went back into its classroom as a tutor on behalf of its Learning Partners Program.

“My first love has always been education,” Fay said. “Now that I have the time, I’m at a point in my life where I can do what I enjoy doing and SOAR gave me the opportunity to put that to practice.” She’s currently tutoring in reading two days a week at Framingham’s Potter Road School.

“Nothing gives me greater joy than to work with the children and the teachers there and to feel that they are benefiting from it — but I think I benefit from it more than they do,” she said.

During the seven years she’s tutored on behalf of SOAR 55, Fay has learned new reading techniques in the various school systems she’s been placed in. “I combine them according to the teacher and the style of learning they’re teaching,” she said, noting, it’s the end result that pleases her most. “When I see the smiles on their faces, there’s nothing that I can think of that’s more rewarding than to have a child look at you and say, ‘I can really do it.’ ”

While most teachers have classrooms of 20 or more children to work with, Fay works with smaller groups. “They enjoy the one-on-one aspect of it,” she said. “I can give them reinforcement quickly and they seem to enjoy that.” The students have also become her friends. “When I walk in, they’re, ‘Hi Mrs. Fay. Why weren’t you in on Tuesday?’ It’s nice.”

Fay said that volunteering for SOAR 55 keeps her young. “It really does,” she said. “If I don’t do it, a big part of my life is missing. I had health issues this summer and had surgery; I couldn’t wait to get back to the classroom.”

SOAR 55’s newest offering is a Caregiver Coach Program where volunteers who’ve had personal experience with caregiving will be trained to give support to those who are going through it now. “That is a need that’s going to be increasing as the population ages and there are less kids to take care of their parents,” Latorre-Stiller said.

The first caregiver coach group will be trained in January and early February, at which point SOAR 55 will begin looking for people that need its services.

“As we, baby boomers, get older, out kids are going to be faced with a lot of responsibilities, so anything that we can do to assist them in that area will be helpful,” she said.

For more information on SOAR 55, call 617-969-5906 x120 or visit http://www.soar55.org.