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Company matching retirees with nonprofits

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. — As she got older, Gail McDaniel felt she should be doing more to make the world better.

Gail McDaniel, who was laid off recently after a long career in retail, poses at her office at My Sister's Place in White Plains, N.Y.

She’d been laid off after a long career in retail, her career-coaching sideline was tapering off and she wanted to keep working — but only at something that would contribute to society.

“I wanted to do some good,” McDaniel said. “It is not uncommon for people who are older to want to give back and do something that feels good.”

Now McDaniel, who’s in her 60s, is the assistant to the executive director at My Sister’s Place, a women’s shelter in the New York suburbs. The connection was made by a company called ReServe, which pairs professionals 55 and older, most of them retired or semiretired, with nonprofit groups or public agencies that can use their skills — at a discount.

McDaniel is making just $10 an hour, and working just 20 hours a week, but said she’s “never been happier.”

“I wanted something that felt worthwhile and the mission here is very powerful,” she said.

Nearly 1,500 “ReServists” have put in time over the past seven years, and more than 500 are working now at a broad variety of positions.

There are college mentors, bookkeepers, writers, teachers, paralegals, administrative assistants, doctors, nurses and even greeters at the wedding chapel in New York’s City Hall.

“We could never afford these social workers, these retired accountants,” said Janice Chu, who coordinates the ReServe program for 17 New York City agencies, including the departments of health, corrections and the aging. “They’re such an asset with their years and years of experience.”

New York City’s is the original and largest ReServe operation, but the company has branches in Westchester County, N.Y.; Newark, N.J.; Baltimore; Miami; and southeast Wisconsin.

ReServists work an average of 15 hours a week at that $10 wage — no health benefits — and the agencies get professional expertise without paying anything close to going rates.

Officials say that because nonprofits, never flush, are battling the slow economy, some of the talents most in demand are fundraising and grant writing. Experience in personnel and accounting is also highly valued, as is the ability to speak a language besides English.

“Nonprofits can’t afford to purchase those skills at market prices,” said Linda Breton, ReServe’s director of affiliate relations.

The nonprofits pay $15 an hour, of which $2.60 goes to ReServe and $2.40 to the company that manages payroll and taxes.

About 50 percent of ReServe’s funding comes from private foundations and public grants, said spokesman Jesse Dean.

Breton said there’s been no trouble attracting qualified applicants.

“We have more people than we can place,” she said. “Recruiting retired professionals has proven to be very easy. They’re passionate about something and they want to give back.”

Getting the nonprofits to post positions is more difficult.

“Lots of them can’t afford people even at $10 an hour,” Breton said.

Nevertheless, ReServe feels the wage is important to a professional arrangement.

“The stipend means everybody has skin in the game,” Breton said. “A volunteer can say, ‘It’s a crummy day, I don’t think I’ll go in.’ A professional doesn’t do that.”

Karen Cheeks-Lomax, executive director at My Sister’s Place, said the $10 “helps formalize the relationship, but in an informal way. It allows the ReServist to create a life in the nonprofit but also continue her other life, or his other life, which may be golfing on Tuesday, book club, whatever.”

McDaniel said the $10 helps her save for trips abroad, but she gets more from the feeling that she’s valued by her boss.

“I am told on a regular basis how valuable I am,” she said. “That’s sexy stuff. It beats the 10 bucks.”

ReServe was founded in 2005 by three men involved with nonprofits who “knew retirees who wanted to do something with their careers’ worth of skills,” Dean said.

The only basic requirement for applicants, besides being at least 55 years old, is computer literacy, Breton said, and “every day that’s less of a problem” as fewer older people resist computers.

At a recent gathering in Manhattan of people interested in signing up, staffer Suzanne O’Keefe mentioned a sampling of available positions — helping with an audit, getting elderly people to take their medications, working as a classroom aide for young children at a school near the Bronx Zoo.

The session attracted 19 people, including a doctor, a nurse, an architect, a TV executive, a few teachers and a real estate lawyer. Most had retired, some had been forced out and some were just looking for something different to do.

O’Keefe asked each to say what they would most like to do for 20 hours a week — a “dream job.”

“Ballerina,” said Marie Sevy of Englewood, N.J., to laughter. Then she said she had put off plans to teach while she raised her children, and “I want to go back to working with kids again now that I’m a grandma and my grandkids are far away.”

Retired architect Larry Litchfield, 80, of Manhattan, said he would enjoy mentoring.

“I’m still healthy and vibrant and I have time. I’d like to be useful.”

But he later received a postcard from ReServe saying the company had been “unable to find suitable placement” for him.

Richard Lee, 78, of Manhattan, said he’d retired three years ago from his business reproducing antique furnishings.

“After 31 years it was like being let out of prison,” he said. “But after a year I was climbing the wall. … I didn’t want to sit at home.”

McDaniel said she’d never have found her current position without ReServe, and she’s grateful for the feeling that she’s working at something important.

“People ask me about My Sister’s Place and I get to say, ‘We provide shelter and legal services for victims of domestic violence and human trafficking,'” she said. “How great is that?”