A bench laden with used appliances awaits a "fix-it" volunteer who will plug things in to see if they work. In the back room of the American...

Share story

A bench laden with used appliances awaits a “fix-it” volunteer who will plug things in to see if they work. In the back room of the American Cancer Society’s tucked-away Discovery Shop on Roosevelt Way, mounds of upscale used clothing get sorted, washed and ironed by women who have given all of their lives as wives, mothers, professionals.

Like the goods at the Discovery Shop, many of the volunteers have a lot more constructive life remaining, but some are sticking to their posts awaiting replacements who do not come. Nearly half are in their 80s. Almost all have been touched by cancer or lost someone they love.

And they’re looking for relief.

“We desperately need new live-wire volunteers,” says Hilde Wilson, 79, limping without complaint from an old back surgery. It’s not that the old ones want to fade away, she adds, but some would like to “sit down and take a rest.”

The last of the waste-not, want-not children of the Great Depression are leaving the volunteer ranks, and organizations everywhere are concerned about how to attract their replacements.

It’s exaggerated at the Roosevelt store, oldest of the Discovery Stores in Washington, because the volunteers came and stayed, becoming good friends as they worked for a great cause.


Want to pitch in?



Volunteers can work on the floor or behind the scenes. The Discovery Shop in Roosevelt is at 6814 Roosevelt Way N.E., Seattle, WA 98115. Call 206-524-3399.

Other area shops include:

• West Seattle, 4535 California Ave. S.W., Seattle, WA 98116; 206-937-7169.

• Kent, 225 First Ave. S., Kent, WA 98032; 253-852-9696.

• Overlake, 14840 N.E. 24th St., Redmond, WA 98052; 425-869-7523.

• Tacoma, 2512 N. Proctor, Tacoma, WA 98406; 253-759-2823.

• Silverdale, 10600 Silverdale Way N.W., Silverdale, WA 98383; 360-613-4139.

For more volunteer opportunities, visit the United Way of King County Volunteer Center at www.uwkc.org/volunteer/


But researchers across the country know it will take more to get that kind of dedication from the baby boomers. The Greatest Generation grew up giving back. Men and women are too busy to develop the volunteer habit now, says Bill La Vergne, 73, a former volunteer who is the Tacoma-based Regional Discovery Shops manager.

“In talking with other organizations, I find that we all seem to be looking for volunteers,” La Vergne says. “There are far more organizations now who depend on volunteers.”

Baby boomers really value their time, so they need flexible, well-organized volunteering experiences that are challenging, according to “Formal Volunteering by the Elderly: Trends, Benefits, and Implications for Managers” by Christina Graham, found on the University of Texas at Austin’s RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service Web site (www.ServiceLeader.org).

Volunteers who are 65 and up are the most likely to contribute 500 or more hours a year. The benefit of older volunteers is the same as older workers, Graham writes: Maturity, availability, strong skills, high numbers and that increasingly rare quality — loyalty.

Dedication is not an issue at the Discovery Shop. La Vergne gets calls from daughters saying their mom needs to retire but will not leave until someone can take her shift.

“I’ve been here 25 years,” said Grace Bailey, 79, whose little brother died of blood cancer 70 years ago. “You know, that type of leukemia is treatable now.”

Bailey is not looking to retire, and neither is Hilde Wilson, whose family arrived in Seattle by bus in 1939, seeing only Hooverville as they came into downtown. “Nobody said a word,” she recalls of driving through the mass of shacks named for the president who was in office at the start of the Great Depression. “We didn’t know what we’d done to ourselves.”

But she finished her education, got married, had children and now uses her lifelong ingenuity to get the best possible price for the goods donated to the Discovery Shop, toting the best or more unusual around to galleries or shops to find their worth.

Wilson lost both parents and a sister to cancer. She’s been a volunteer here for 14 years.

The 11 Discovery Shops in Washington and Oregon have made almost $10 million for cancer research — nearly $2 million just from the Roosevelt store since 1976. Customers come in to buy neatly washed and ironed Jones of New York or Ralph Lauren recycled clothing, but also for support.

Some come straight from hearing the word “cancer” at the doctor’s office, not knowing why they are drawn to the store, but sensing comfort. The volunteers, many of them cancer survivors, will hand over the phone and dial the 1-800-ACS-2345 hotline, where trained cancer specialists are available 24 hours a day, says La Vergne.

Over the years they’ve gotten as good as they get from volunteering, some of them say. The experts tell why: The social support from co-workers and customers is known to extend lives.

“I have to do something,” says Lillian Beste, nearly 91, who came in to iron one day seven years ago and now works four mornings a week. “I get bored watching TV.”

Beste remembers ironing with a Sad Iron, a metal iron placed on the stove or fire that was named for an old English word meaning heavy. She raised four children and always tried to keep learning when she worked.

She feels she’s capable of handling all tasks here except pricing — “I’d give everything away” — but gets the most satisfaction from sending the clothes out ready to wear.

“This way they look nice on a hanger, and not like they’ve been in a bundle all day,” she says.

One volunteer sorts donated books (25 cents for paperbacks). Another makes repairs. Thanks to one woman’s expertise at recognizing shoe labels and quality, the price for a pair has gone from $3 up to as much as $15, “and it’s still a good bargain,” says Wilson, who adds, “Nordstrom has nothing on us.”

Each Discovery Shop requires about 40 volunteers, and all need more, but especially the Roosevelt store, which depends on word of mouth for customers and volunteers. It’s off the beaten path, La Vergne says, and closed before most people get off work.

He hopes the trend of schools requiring community service will create new habits, mirroring the attitude of a young woman from Thailand whose husband is a University of Washington student. She wrote on her application at Roosevelt:

“Just want to be useful to the society.”

Studies show a lot of people don’t volunteer because they’re not asked. So Wilson is asking.

It’s good work, she says. “It certainly keeps you out of mischief.”