RSVP Director Traci Pondick (left) accepts a certificate of service for her 15 years with the program from Chief Administrative Officer Shane Ellison (right).
By Katie Bohannon, News Editor
The Etowah County Commission recognized Retired & Senior Volunteer Program Director Traci Pondick for her 15 years of service to her community on Tuesday, February 16. While the commission honored Pondick, her diligence as director stems from the understanding she acquired more than a decade ago about a life-changing program working to uplift and encourage throughout the county.
Pondick fell into her position by accident after she applied for a job at the courthouse following several pleasant years working at Sears. Although Pondick interviewed for a secretarial position with RSVP with then Director Jan Kelly, she never heard more from Kelly until their paths crossed in Sears months later.
“Jan told me then, and this is a life lesson, that it was between me and this other girl,” said Kelly. “The girl she hired was there for three or four months and quit, but Jan said she sent a ‘thank you’ card for the interview. I’ve learned that lesson now!”
Hired as secretary in 2006, Pondick began learning the intricacies of RSVP straightaway. Although she was familiar with the program from its partnership with Sears that fostered a gift-wrapping fundraiser at Christmastime, Pondick’s introduction to the true meaning and mission of RSVP enlightened her to a program that affects lives countywide.
“RSVP’s mission is two-fold,” said Pondick. “It works both ways. For the senior citizens who are the volunteers, it helps them use their skills and abilities and keep their purpose in life – it keeps them busy into their later years after they retire. There are tons of studies that show that people who stay active longer stay physically and mentally healthier longer. RSVP helps the volunteer, but then the volunteer in turn is helping all of these non-profits, organizations and schools in Etowah County and Cherokee County.”
Sponsored by the Etowah County Commission, RSVP is a national program comprised of approximately 350 active volunteers from the ages of 55 and older who provide a plethora of services throughout the area. Volunteer opportunities emerge in numerous ways, from tutoring elementary school children in reading to delivering nutritious meals, to constructing homes with Habitat for Humanity and mentoring families, to extending acts of service in hospitals or forming food pantries. For those who prefer to remain in their homes, opportunities like phone reminders or creating encouraging gifts for children and patients exist as well.
One of the services most frequently associated with RSVP is the program’s free income tax program. IRS-trained volunteers prepare and file federal and state income taxes, assisting an average of 2,000 tax payers over the past three years. Through an IRS grant, Impact America and the commission, the program supports individuals seeking to file federal income tax returns electronically and gain the Earned Income Tax Credit, a refundable tax credit for low to moderate income working couples and individuals, specifically those with children.
Potential volunteers complete enrollment forms featuring a questionnaire regarding their likes, dislikes and interests.
While Pondick and her team gleam a general idea of the opportunity that best suits the individual from the enrollment form, through conversing with intrigued men and women she and the RSVP staff learn the specifics of their interests, pairing them with volunteer opportunities where they will flourish and enjoy. Pondick not only considers where individuals’ interests lie, but how those interests overlap with comfortability, ensuring that volunteers feel confident, prepared and equipped to make a positive difference in their community.
Pondick shared the testimonies of those affected by RSVP’s volunteerism, describing how the program unifies people for a cause greater than themselves and inspires individuals to discover their purpose in life.
“Last year we had a young man who was so happy to be doing a tax return,” said Pondick. “He had been in prison and addicted to drugs, but now he felt like he was doing what he was supposed to, because he was sober and filling out a tax return. We’ve had a couple of volunteers who lost a spouse and this kept them alive – it gave them a purpose and got them out of their house.”
Pondick noted while her professional skills in areas like marketing, public speaking and grant-writing have grown throughout her years with RSVP, the wisdom she gained through forming relationships with volunteers gifted her with an entirely new and treasured understanding.
“The truth is, everybody is so individual, no matter what age they are,” said Pondick. “You can say baby boomers are this way or millennials are like this, but that’s not true for them all. We’ve got people 55 up to 90-something with our volunteers. We have 90-year-olds who are still driving and still just as active as people in their seventies or sixties. That’s the biggest takeaway – you can delegate somebody into this group by their age, but you can’t pinpoint them into being a certain way because of their age.”
Pondick commended the commission’s strong partnership with RSVP, sharing that she felt embarrassed to receive an award for her efforts while she believes the commission makes her job possible.
“In the 15 years I’ve been here, the commission has always been very good to us,” said Pondick. “We have a good relationship, and they pretty much let me do what I want to do. You can’t say that for every RSVP in the country – sometimes they’re having to beg and borrow for little things. I have a nice office with good equipment, and I hate to take it for granted. The commission allows us to do our job well.”
Through Pondick and RSVP’s team of committed individuals, the program nurtures hope for senior citizens and the recipients of their assistance near and far. As Pondick recognizes the talents and skills acquired from lifetimes of extraordinary experiences, she values the wealth of wisdom and knowledge that local seniors possess to pass on to future generations – granting each RSVP participant the opportunity to affect lives for the better and reminding them that their purpose is needed, appreciated and everlasting.
“Just remember you don’t know anybody else’s story until you’ve heard it,” said Pondick. “Keep an open mind.”