Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin drew the important connection between jobs, the rural way of life, and promoting a clean environment.
In order to know where you’re going, you have to
know where you’ve been. As Experience Works celebrates 50 years of service,
it’s a golden opportunity to take a quick look back at how it all began.
“Our success and longevity should be credited to the founders. They were
visionaries,” says Sally A. Boofer, Experience Works President and CEO.
Boofer is referring to people like the National Farmers Union President Jim
Patton, President Lyndon B. Johnson, and First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson – to
name a few. In response to the War on Poverty, the seeds were planted for
a small rural demonstration program to help poor retired farmers. It
offered them a chance to put their “green thumbs” to work beautifying America,
while they earned a much-needed income. The brilliant concept caught on
Appropriately named Green Thumb, this project of National Farmers Union was the
first nonprofit organization to run a jobs program for disadvantaged rural
Americans. It was common to see crews donned in bright green hard hats
throughout Arkansas, New Jersey, Oregon, and Minnesota - painting picnic
tables, fixing playground equipment, and serving as groundskeepers for city parks
and national forests. As farmers spruced up their communities, they found
purpose, and regained self-worth. Plus, residents, visitors, and passersby took
pride in their newly improved surroundings.
Green Thumb was so effective that it served as the model for development of the
U.S. Department of Labor funded Senior Community Service Employment Program
(SCSEP). SCSEP is also celebrating
a 50th anniversary this
year. As Green Thumb
evolved into Experience Works, it took the lead among other SCSEP grantees
across the nation in providing training, community service, and
employment opportunities for thousands of low-income, older Americans.
“The impact was and still is far-reaching,” says Boofer. “It’s the perfect
combination – helping financially strapped community organizations provide and
expand services, while giving participants the chance to give back to their
community and earn money as a springboard to employment and
For current program
participants, the opportunities are endless – performing clerical duties for a
busy community health clinic, maintaining the appearance of a YMCA, or
assisting in a public library. As participants become job ready, their
community service contributions are impressive. Each year, roughly 15,000
participants nationwide contribute more than 7 million hours to enhance and
expand local services. Many host agencies report that some outreach and
services would not be possible without the extra help they provide.
During the last few years, technology has played a key
role in defining additional training that complements the participants’
community service experience. From learning basic computer skills to receiving
course certifications through virtual classroom settings, the list continues to
grow. “Technology has probably had the biggest impact on what we do,” Boofer says.
In the early days, Green Thumb was a program for men only. This was remedied with the addition of a sister project called Green Light after an outspoken Arkansas woman wanted to be involved. Ironically, as time passed and the programs eventually merged, women came to represent the highest percentage of people served. It’s still true today.
You might say Experience
Works has come full circle since the days of Green Thumb. Experience Works
Board Chairman Roger Noonan agrees. “Seniors living in rural areas
continue to be some of the most underserved,” he says. “It’s crucial that
we continue to develop relationships that help them succeed.” As the
current New England Farmers Union president, he is also interested in
rebuilding the tradition with the National Farmers Union.
What will the next 50
years look like? As the number of older individuals needing help
reentering the workforce continues to increase, it’s going to be busy. There’s
always a need for additional funding to meet the demand for services,
especially considering only one per cent of the qualifying population is able
to be served presently.
services might hit closer to home that you think. “It could be your
grandmother, uncle, neighbor, or sister – you just never know because they are
proud and don’t want to ask for help,” Boofer says.
That’s something Noonan
knows firsthand. “We didn’t realize how badly mom was affected after my father died,” he says. Enrolling in a New
Hampshire Green Thumb program was just what she needed to get back her quality
of life. “It was amazing to see the difference.
She was productive and happy.”
grows old. It’s been a wonderful
journey, and Experience Works is ready, willing, and able to take on another 50
years. Your continued support is greatly
appreciated and valued.