Award-winning Minnesota senior says volunteering saved her

When it came time for nominations for the 2018 Outstanding Senior Award, Judy Peterson of Grand Rapids was an obvious choice.

Judy visits patients with Itasca Hospice; she oversees the receptionist volunteers at Itasca County Tax Aide, which assisted more than 1,000 clients during the 2017 season; she directs ElderCircle’s free grocery shopping and delivery program, which has tripled in size under her leadership from 8-10 clients per week in 2011 to 30-33 clients per week this year. She also helps coordinate food distribution to families in need with Ruby’s Pantry and serves with Habitat for Humanity, Open Door Coat Rack and in other ways.

Judy receives her Outstanding Senior Award at the Minnesota State Fair

Judy’s hard work and dedication was recognized on Aug. 30 when she received the 2018 Outstanding Senior Award at the Minnesota State Fair. As a result, ElderCircle was awarded $1,000 on Judy’s behalf.

But Judy, 75, didn’t always envision retirement this way.

Born and raised on a farm near Mille Lacs Lake, just north of Isle, Minnesota, Judy worked as a medical transcriptionist and medical secretary for most of her career after raising three children. She managed a medical equipment company prior to retirement when she was 62.

“I worked really hard at two and three jobs. I was ready to retire and have less responsibility,” Judy says.

But after a few weeks of retirement, Judy realized doing less wasn’t enough. “I found I needed something more.”

She discovered what she was looking for when she became a volunteer.

“It saved me,” Judy says. “I’m a firm believer in what volunteering does for individuals, plus what it does for society.”

Volunteering has helped create purpose and friendships for Judy. “When I got into volunteering, I found the most positive people that were so upbeat and willing to give,” Judy says. “People who were my age who I could relate to.”

Judy says volunteering prevents her from sitting around and doing nothing or focusing too much on herself. “You want to take care of your health, and you have same issues as everyone else. But you’re not dwelling on it every day and it doesn’t become your whole being.”

Judy shares a laugh with Outstanding Senior Award recipient, Al Sannerud

Judy says she also receives positive reinforcement from clients, families and fellow volunteers. “I send out a survey to my clients once a year for the grocery program and they send back wonderful feedback like, ‘I don’t know what I’d do without you’ and ‘Thank you for being organized.’ Sometimes clients tell me I’m the only person they talked to this week.”

But Judy makes one thing clear. “I don’t volunteer for people to recognize that I volunteer.”

She adds that winning the 2018 Outstanding Senior Award provided a great opportunity to talk about volunteering – which she did in her acceptance speech at the Minnesota State Fair. “Volunteering is one of the best things you can do as you age,” Judy said while standing on the Leinie Lodge Bandshell stage. “It gives you such a sense of belonging.”

If retirees are considering volunteering, Judy wants to remind them that a volunteering commitment can be flexible. “Get away from thinking that if you’re willing to help, you’ll be asked to help all the time,” Judy says. “Some of my volunteers with the grocery program volunteer for three hours once a month. Or they take orders on a Tuesday.” Judy encourages seniors to explore volunteer opportunities through RSVP (Retired Senior Volunteer Program), one of the largest volunteer networks in the nation for people 55 and over.

Employers in Minnesota also should recognize the benefits of hiring older workers, Judy points out. “They have loyalty. They show up for work. They may have more health issues, but they don’t have young children. All of those things.”

Judy says technology can be a challenge. “I really think the more things that can be offered to senior citizens to bring them along into the technology world the better, but with the idea that the teaching needs to be so that the older person doesn’t feel stupid.”

Judy’s own career skills have served her well as a volunteer. Her strong background in medical language allows her to help elderly clients navigate insurance forms and other health-related documents.

Lately, Judy has given a lot of thought to volunteering with youth to complement what she does with seniors. Last fall, Judy was asked to be a reading buddy at a local school but had too many other commitments at the time. She is also looking to volunteer as an usher at the Reif Performing Arts Center, a busy theater program in Grand Rapids.

“It’s on my list of things to get done.”

Anna Paulson is a regulator contributor to Face Aging MN. If you want to reach her or have any questions, you can reach us at Have your own story to share? We’d love to hear from you.

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