Charlotte Strei retires after 29 years with the program

by Beth Balmanno

Contributing Writer

For the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP), the new year marks the end of an era for the program as longtime coordinator Charlotte Strei hands over the reins to Heather Brooks.

Strei has been involved with Sherburne County’s RSVP program, the national, nonprofit organization that is part of the Senior Corps, for 29 years. Prior to joining RSVP, she managed a volunteer program at a nursing home in St. Louis Park for a few years, but the commute from her Big Lake Township home was becoming increasingly difficult and time-consuming. Her father-in-law was a county director of human services at the time and was familiar with the RSVP program, and he knew of the opening in Sherburne County.

“He let me know about it and I applied,” Strei said. “It was a fantastic opportunity for me to be closer to home, and it was a part-time position, so it led wonderfully into raising a family.”

A lot has changed during Strei’s decades-long run with RSVP, especially in how the program tracks and catalogs needs, and how they communicate with volunteers.

“I had a pad of paper and a telephone,” Strei said as she remembers her early days on the job. “When I got a Selectric typewriter with a back correction key, I was so excited.”

Her filing system included a small cabinet and a Rolodex for agency contacts. She also had a file card for each volunteer. Fast forward to now, where 75% of the program’s volunteers use email, and all of their volunteer needs are listed online.

Despite the changes in communication, one thing has remained constant among their senior and retired volunteers: the desire to help their community.

“There are wonderful people who are so willing to be involved and engaged, and to use their experiences and their wisdom to be contributing members of the community as they continue to age,” Strei said.

Heather Brooks, the new RSVP coordinator, is no stranger to working with seniors, or to the RSVP program. She recently graduated from St. Cloud State with a social work degree, and she chose RSVP for her senior internship placement. Brooks spent a few years working with county services in the aging and disability department, but when she learned of Strei’s intended retirement, she knew she wanted to apply for the position.

“I’ve always been drawn to the aging population,” Brooks said.

She has volunteered in nursing homes since she was 11, and she also spent time living with her grandma while she was in college.

Brooks knows she has some big shoes to fill with Strei’s departure, but she is looking forward to continuing the work of her predecessor and making her own impact on the program. Her plans include revamping the website and creating a newsletter that would go out to both volunteers and agencies. With a base of 300 volunteers in Sherburne County, she would love to grow that number and help connect even more citizens with agencies and organizations in need of volunteers.

One thing Strei and Brooks both stressed is that citizens of any age can contact RSVP for information regarding volunteer opportunities. Although the RSVP program specifically works with adults aged 55+, they have access to most of the volunteer needs in the community, and the office is happy to connect individuals of all ages with organizations seeking help. Numerous opportunities are available in local schools, in addition to Guardian Angels and other senior care facilities. Some are recurring opportunities, but many are one-time events for people who cannot commit to volunteering on a regular basis.

Transportation volunteers are also in high demand, according to both Strei and Brooks.

“Individuals who are willing to use their own vehicles to take the elderly to appointments … is a huge need,” Strei said.

Strei and Brooks have spent the last few months working together, with Strei closing out projects she has been working on and providing some mentoring as Brooks steps fully into the coordinator position. Strei is confident that Brooks will bring a wealth of new ideas and energy to the role, and Brooks is grateful for the time Strei has dedicated to ensuring a smooth transition. She is also thrilled that her social work degree is already being put to good use in her new position.

“I was surprised,” she admitted. “I thought I would just be helping sweet older adults with connecting them to volunteer experiences, but there are a lot of issues that come up in making sure that our volunteers are advocated for correctly, and that they’re appreciated in their community.”

Information about the RSVP program can be found by calling 763-635-4505 or by visiting the RSVP website at https://bit.ly/2MIB8fy.

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