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 quickly.

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.    

image-29.jpg“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 independence.” 

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. 

Green_Thumb_Teacher.jpgThose needing 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.” 

Dignity never 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. 




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