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Taking Volunteerism to New Heights: Bonus Years Hero Joanne Miller

JoannWhen I think of my new friend Joanne Miller, aged 77 years, the three words that come to mind are service, energy and clarity. She is the walking, talking image of the ideas that I share at my “Refire Don’t Retire” talks, and I thought it would be a wonderful idea to feature Joanne in today’s blog post, the second in a series on Bonus Years Heroes.

Joanne has been recognized as Volunteer of the Year in Eau Claire, Wisconsin by two organizations since she retired twenty two years ago at 55. The two organizations are Visit Eau Claire and Friends of Eau Claire Regional Arts.

During her retirement she’s also written two books – the first, a reference manual for administrative office workers co-written with Susan Jaderstrom and Leonard Kruk and published by Random House in 2002 and the second, a textbook “Business English at Work“, in it’s third edition, co-written with Susan Jaderstrom and published by McGraw-Hill in 2006.

visit eau claireI sat down with Joanne recently to learn about her work with Visit Eau Claire that inspired the selection committee to bestow the State Volunteer of the Year honor on her. After hearing her story, I was delighted to learn that Joanne’s accomplishments here, as in other areas of her life, have been the result of her choices followed by her actions.

Here is her “refirement” story.

Joanne retired from her teaching position at Hartnell College in Salinas, CA in 1992 so she could have more flexibility in her life to do the things that were most important to her. She really loved her teaching job at the college, but her parents had recently passed away, and Joanne chose to assume the role of primary caregiver for her younger sister Sharon, born with Down Syndrome. Sharon is now 70 years old.

Although Joanne was retired from her teaching position, she wanted to keep contributing to the world around her and she started thinking about what she could do next in addition to caring for Sharon. Volunteer work seemed like it would fit the bill, so she started exploring the possibilities.

“I started by generating two lists”, Joanne told me. “The first list was ‘Things I thought I could do’ and the second list was ‘Things I wanted to do’.” She looked for commonalities across the two lists to narrow in on the type of work that would be most satisfying for her. By thinking about her volunteer work in this way, Joanne was putting herself at choice and on the path to joy and fulfillment.

Armed with her vision of the work she wanted to do, she uncovered a volunteer opportunity at “Visit Eau Claire”. She joined up with the nonprofit and after volunteering there for several years the staff found Joanne to be so indispensable that they converted her volunteer job to a flexible part time paid position.

Eau Claire regional artsIn the meantime, she founded the Friends of Eau Claire Regional Arts and ended up coordinating 350 volunteers that served as ushers for the various shows. She described herself as the ‘VCC’ (volunteer volunteer coordinator).

I wanted to understand the secret of Joanne’s success, so I asked her about the philosophies and practices that have guided her in work and in life.

Joanne’s primary guiding philosophies are:

1. Start from baby steps. Be willing to experiment and try new things. You might learn something about yourself and the world around you.
2. Go after what you think you want. Think about the intersection of what you think you can do and what you want to do.
3. Always impress in the job you have. Make an impression, do what’s unexpected; it always goes with you.
4. Enjoy what you are doing. Do your work joyfully without feeling you’re being put upon. Don’t let what others are thinking stop you from pursuing your goal.

Joanne’s daily practices:

1. Humor. She reads from a humorous book every day.
2. Proverbs. She reads from a book of proverbs daily to make sure her mind is set in the right way.
3. Meaningful activity. Taking good care of her sister starts her on her mission to make every day a good day.
4. Be happy for the day. Joanne looks to do something for others that will make them smile. She looks forward to the day to see what she can learn and what she can do for someone else. Her success is measured by the smile she creates in their eyes.

Do you have any Bonus Years Heroes like Joanne in your life? What can the rest of us learn from that special person? Inspire us! Leave your story in the comments below.

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Larry Freeborg
Larry Freeborg is a life transition coach and inspirational speaker focused on working with people in the “Bonus Years” of their lives. His unique experiences working with businesses in strategic planning, business development (marketing & sales), leadership and personal development are blended with his training in life coaching, equine guided coaching, and his personal experiences with loss to form the foundation of his coaching practice, Living The Good Life on Purpose. Larry is available for speaking engagements with his popular “Refire, Don’t Retire!” and “Life Purpose Primer” programs. Contact Larry at