Keeping Up the Good Work
Lobbying, recruiting, volunteering—NEA-Retired members pitch in.
Maybe you envisioned a retirement filled with pleasure cruises, catnaps in the hammock, and saying goodbye to classroom concerns forever.
Then you retired, and like so many other NEA members, realized you weren’t done fighting for the cause: A great public school for every student. You made sure you remained a member of your Association, so that your energy, enthusiasm, and experience could be shared for the benefit of all members, students, and schools.
You’re not alone. For the better part of three decades, NEA-Retired members have been hard at work serving the education community through fundraising, membership recruitment, lobbying, and volunteering.
These efforts have helped build a strong NEA-Retired community, but also a strong NEA family, with Retired voices reaching across generations to make sure every educator is supported in the profession, and every student has a chance to succeed.
Fighting for Political Change
Who better to fight for public education than those who have already devoted their careers to it?
Barbara Gilhaus gained lobbying experience as an Active member during her 32 years as a family and consumer science teacher in rural Champagne County, Illinois.
It was after her retirement in 1993, however, that her lobbying efforts kicked into high gear.
“I knew where the money for education was coming from: politics. And I knew that if I wanted to get money for the issues that mattered to me and my colleagues, I had to get involved in political activity,” she says.
Jennifer Baker, a legislative advocate for the California Teachers Association, knows just how important Retired members like Gilhaus are in the advocacy arena.
“I’ve worked with Retired members on many issues—from the Social Security offsets to protecting defined benefit systems,” says Baker. She admires the profound impact retirees have as advocates: “The best thing they can do to educate and influence decisionmakers is tell their own stories,” she says. “It’s amazing how effective they are.”
Gilhaus and her colleagues get loud at Lobby Days, one of Illinois’ biggest annual advocacy events, which draws thousands of education professionals to the Illinois Education Association headquarters. After they rally for pro-public education issues, they meet with legislators to discuss them at the state capitol across the street.
The event takes place during the school day when it can be difficult for active teachers to participate.
“This is where the efforts of Retired members really come into play. We have time during the day to staff phone banks, write letters and emails, or whatever else we can do to help,” says Gilhaus. “It’s our way of giving back.”
There’s no question IEA-Retired members have influence. When Illinois legislators proposed doing away with health insurance for retired public employees, Gilhaus and her teammates helped stop the initiative.
“As soon as I know that there is an opportunity to fight for education, I am there,” Gilhaus says.
Funding the Cause
Tom Curran makes it look like a piece of cake.
During the past five years, the Vice President of NEA-Retired has raised over $200,000 for the NEA Fund for Children and Education, which supports candidates with education on their agenda.
“It’s fun and it’s easy with Retired members, because they’ve been involved since the beginning,” Curran says.
Brian Dunn, NEA senior political action committee fundraiser, says the Fund for Children and Education is NEA’s voice in Washington, and credits Curran’s dedication and outlook with contributing to its success: “He sets goals, and then empowers others to help achieve those goals.”
And Curran’s goals are simple—do better than the year before. Creative fundraisers include auctions, donations, giveaways, and raffling the annual NEA-Retired quilt, whose squares are made from members’ NEA T-shirts. Local and state chapters donate gifts that represent their states—blueberries from Maine, macadamia nuts from Hawaii, and, a crowd favorite, ironwood from Arizona. A longtime activist, Curran taught English and social studies and was a guidance counselor before retiring. His NEA résumé includes serving as Maine Education Association vice president and on the Advisory Council.
Encouraging more Retired members to get involved will help the organization reach its target, says Curran, as well as influence education in another way: “It’s my opinion that the NEA-Retired people are among the best lobbyists.”
Ken Mortland, a Washington Education Association-Retired member, is another fine example. With 35 years of political action experience, he was appointed to a UniServ council, and to represent the WEA-Retired Board on the WEA PAC (political action committee) Management Board.
With his expertise, Mortland lobbies for education reform issues along with Active teacher members. Also a dedicated fundraiser, he says both efforts rely on a strong member base.
For Mortland and Curran, fundraising, activism, and membership efforts all work hand-in-hand.
Join the Club!
Just as a building is put together brick by brick, a thriving organization is assembled member by member. And member-to-member recruitment efforts have proven to be key in making NEA-Retired the Association’s fastest growing constituency.
Barb Burgess discusses NEA-Retired benefits with educators.
As local retired president for Florida’s Hillsborough County, Merrilyn Crosson helps her chapter publish a newsletter and keep an updated website for transitioning members. She also presents the NEA-Retired plan to members who are about to retire.
“Retirement doesn’t mean the end,” Crosson says, “It’s just a different avenue in life.”
The way to attract new members, she says, is to communicate with educational professionals before retirement, emphasize the health benefits that come with membership, and create visibility in the community.
Crosson shares her personal medical history to illustrate how NEA’s plan is different from others. Upon retiring from her 30 years of teaching, Crosson realized that a heart attack suffered years earlier was a limiting factor in finding supplemental insurance—until she discovered the NEA-Retired Medicare plan.
Barb Burgess, an Iowa Education Association Retired member and UniServ volunteer, cites the Medicare package of the NEA-Retired plan as a deciding factor for many retiring educators. They realize the plan’s insurance benefits are “the best out there,” she says.
Burgess’s efforts to promote the benefits of being an NEA-Retired member align with a statewide recruitment push. Iowa State Retired President Barbara Cunningham says that the 725-member organization is trying to create more visibility and recruit a record number of new retirees.
“This is our year,” Cunningham says. “Membership is our big drive right now, and that will continue into the fall.”
Many of NEA’s most important initiatives rely on Retired members’ contributions.
NEA-Retired Intergenerational Mentoring Program
If experience is the best teacher, then the NEA Student members involved in the NEA-Retired Intergenerational Mentoring Program have a great shot at becoming the next generation of great educators. The seven-year-old program is offered in a dozen states across the country, matching Student members with Retired members willing to commit to a two-year mentoring relationship to offer guidance, advice, and tricks of the trade as the Student member transitions into the classroom.
David Mussetter, Director of Constituency Organizing in Colorado, helped incorporate the NEA Inter-generational Mentoring Program at the University of Northern Colorado.
“Students know that they will have an experienced teacher guiding them through student teaching and their first year in the classroom; this puts this program in very high demand.”
Mussetter adds that the program has, in turn, increased both Student and Retired membership in the area.
NEA’s Read Across America
Dr. Seuss would undoubtedly be thrilled that the red and white stovepipe hat worn by the Cat in the Hat, one of his signature characters, is now the emblem for the most widespread reading initiative in the country.
NEA's Read Across America was created in 1997 in response to countless pleas from teachers who wanted to get their students more excited about reading. It is celebrated every year on March 2, Dr. Seuss’s birthday.
“Retired members have been here since the beginning,” says Anita Merina, national coordinator of NEA’s Read Across America. “Many retired members organize local and statewide events, read to children, and have even served on advisory committees for the program.”
Today, more than 45 million adults, teens, and children read together every year, as Read Across has become a year-round program.
Outreach to Teach
Retired members have been involved since the 1996 inception of this annual service event, when Student and Retired members lead the way in repairing a needy school in the area where the NEA Representative Assembly is held.
At the 2009 event in San Diego, Retired members climbed, painted, stapled, planted, hauled, dug, sorted, and built, resulting in beautiful landscaping, a fully renovated library, playful murals, a snazzy teachers lounge, and new lunch tables for kids and staff at Balboa Elementary School.
Seniors 4 Kids
Generations United’s Seniors4Kids is a civic engagement project that encourages adults 50 years and older to play an active role in fighting for issues that affect today’s youth.
Currently, they are focused on improving pre-kindergarten programs, and making sure that every child has access to them through advocacy, training, and political awareness.
“Many of our volunteers are grandparents themselves. They know how important the first five years of a child’s life are to their overall well-being,” says Paul Arfin, State Coordinator for New York.
Seniors4Kids is currently operating in Kentucky, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania, and has recently operated in Florida and Ohio.
“It’s about the importance of one generation fighting on behalf of another,” says Arfin.
--By Ankita Rao and Meredith Scaggs