Service and late adulthood: a guest post from Kathy Balke (Balke Bros mom)

28 Feb

Forward: Below, find a post from a very special guest blogger, our beloved mother, Kathy Balke. In it, she describes the hopes, trials, and travails of the tens of thousands of 60-somethings who have have wrapped up successful careers and family lives but still have a burning desires to serve their country, particularly the most disadvantaged members of it, and face seemingly systematic disadvantages in doing so. She asks where the opportunities are for older people like her, who’ve been shut out of service organizations, like Teach for America, who seem to reserve spots only, or almost invariably, for younger applicants. This piece also touches on deeper, and more economic, issues in the United States: how to find gainful employment for an aging population? Doing so, by opening up employment for, and thereby generating income taxes from, aging adults could provide valuable revenue for a Treasury increasingly starved of it. Kathy’s case is broadly relevant, and speaks to a number of issues that should be at the center of public debate in this country. Read the piece, and let us know your thoughts.

Is it possible to be too late or too old to come to the party? Sure, etiquette dictates behavior at parties. When I use the word “party” here I refer to the table, the marketplace, the organization, and better yet: to serve. Now 61, my life has developed slowly, as has my capacity to serve. Does that make me less valuable? Or am I more fully developed, as they say about wine, pardon the colloquialism, seasoned, if you will, and do I bring a treasure trove of adaptable skills and knowledge acquired through living a rich life?

Here’s the thing. I would like to serve in a meaningful way to provide equity in education to children in this country. Sure, I have tutored, taught as a substitute, taught a college course, and applied to Teach For America (TFA) and the DC Teaching Fellows (a program similar to TFA). Short of starting my own non-profit, where do I go to serve in this way?

Almost daily I hear about our failing education system, the plight of underserved students, troubled school districts, and burned out teachers. I am offering my hand. I do not fancy a typical teaching career; I certainly am not going back to school. But I would like to serve a term in an organization that was specifically developed to achieve educational parity and I would like to be able to pay my student loans while doing that work.

So what can I bring to the “party” that a shiny, young, newly, certified teacher can’t? And by “party”, clearly I know would be no picnic. I, and I imagine many others similar to me, bring 60+ years of hope gained through a variety of experiences both professional and personal. I firmly believe that I am more prepared for the arduous work, heartbreaking circumstances, and frustrating roadblocks to success than I have ever been in my life. I am also prepared for the long haul, knowing as I do that progress is often made in
small increments. I know that success is not always immediately visible; it is sometimes not seen in the short term, and it is often not appreciated.

I have weathered a long life of great joys and great sadness. I grew up in a family of seven children. My mother was widowed by suicide when I was eleven. I received an excellent education but decided college was not for me after my first semester. I married young and had children late, not by my time clock but, apparently, by others. I had success in a banking career and continued to take classes here
and there. I have experienced the loss of a child to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and the loss of a beloved brother to suicide.
I have raised two brilliant, kind, young men. I completed my college career, BA and MA in my 50s. I have served on non-profit boards and as a member of AmeriCorps LISC. I have phoned, canvassed, and processed data for political campaigns, including, twice, for President Obama. I have organized food drives and written letters to the editor. I have coordinated several cross-country moves for my family and left beloved people and places behind. I have facilitated the care of a mother with Alzheimer’s. I have witnessed the hopelessness of alcoholism and the impact it has on families. Am I special? Maybe not, but I am adaptable to change and, perhaps more importantly, always hopeful that things are possible with hard work. I have seen it happen.

Now that I am more prepared and unencumbered than I have ever been, how do I get to the party? I wasn’t too old to acquire student loans and I am not too old to make a significant contribution to children that deserve a caring adult who believes in them. Like other people in my generation, who have retired from successful careers in other field, I want, and am ready, willing, and eminently qualified to serve in a way that creates a more equitable, opportunity-rich future for the most disadvantaged, disaffected people in this country, particularly young people. I want to serve. But, the service system, and the organizations, like TFA and Teaching Fellows, that currently comprise it, seems stacked against me. What to do, and how best to contribute at this point?


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