When many of us retire, we're as qualified to add value as we've ever been. And suddenly we have enough time and "space" in our lives to think big in terms of helping others. Here's a story about how we ended up using our skills and experience to help others in an unexpected way. Hopefully this story will encourage you to jump in when you think they can help instead of just watching and waiting from the sidelines.
On a Saturday morning in January of 2018, my YouTube feed served up a video of brave women and girls speaking during the sentencing hearing for that disgraced gymnastics doctor. Their stories and courage were impossible to ignore. You may recall that the hearing took place in Michigan and that the doctor worked at Michigan State University (MSU). He'd also served as the doctor for the US Women's gymnastics team from 1978-2016. Having grown up in Michigan, the story hit close to home, and I followed it more closely than some.
The University's response to the crisis was confusing and filled with missteps. Having spent part of my career in marketing and communications positions, the university's actions were counterintuitive to everything I'd learned about crisis management. As the university stumbled, I waited for alumni and students to speak up, but nearly all I knew remained silent. It was frustrating and confusing; it seemed like somebody needed to support these survivors, but neither the school, nor its alumni and students seemed to know how to help. Out of sheer frustration, and in an attempt to be helpful, I created an outline for a "Crisis Management Plan" which I emailed to the Acting President of the University. (The previous President had resigned as a result of the situation.) Surprisingly, he responded to the message quickly by expressing thanks and informing me he'd pass the info along to the external firm they'd hired to help manage the crisis. I was surprised to get such a fast response, and that led me to believe that my ideas might be valuable.
Unfortunately the university's missteps continued, and people continued to remain silent ... for nearly a year. As new info emerged, things seemed to go from bad to worse. One positive thing did occur; in December of 2017 a "Healing Assistance Fund" was established by the University's Board of Trustees. The fund was created to cover counseling costs for the survivors and members of their families.
In February of 2018 an Interim university President was appointed; the former Governor of Michigan, John Engler. Unfortunately, in December of 2018 Interim President Engler announced that the remaining money in the Healing Assistance Fund ($8.5M) would be "redirected" to pay down university debt; another point of confusion, especially among the survivors. Initially I assumed that the survivors must have misunderstood the intent of the Fund, so dug into the situation to learn more. What I learned was troubling; it was clear that MSU had truly broken a promise to these survivors and their families.
Again, I assumed that MSU alumni would step up to help get the situation resolved, but with only a few exceptions they continued to remain silent. It seemed likely that MSU alumni and the residents of Michigan cared about the survivors and would want MSU to honor its commitment, so after discussing the situation with my husband and adult children, we hatched a plan to provide a simple way for people to express their concern by creating an online call for the university to honor their commitment. It was called MSU Honor.
We wondered if the effort would go anywhere and feared that only a few friends would be willing to sign on. The website was created quickly and a Twitter account was established. From start to finish, the set-up took little less than a day. On a Sunday afternoon in mid-December of 2018, the website was ready and announced via Twitter. As I clicked "Tweet" for the first time, I jokingly said to my husband, "Get ready for the names to start pouring in." We laughed and prepared to rest. But about two minutes later a name arrived. Then two more. Then even more. By that evening there were over 300 supporters. We were literally unable to post the names as fast as they were coming in, so eventually we semi-automated the process for posting new names.
For the next eight weeks, which included the Christmas and New Year holidays, posting names and processing related activities like press inquiries consumed us. Five of the eight University Trustees added their names, along with the current and a former Governor of Michigan, other leaders, MSU alumni and students, many survivors, and other residents of Michigan as well as the US.
It would be nice to think that this effort forced the Board's decision to re-establish the Healing Fund when that happened in February of 2019, but maybe it's more likely that it simply provided a focal point and amplified voices during a confusing and frustrating time. Either way, I think the effort helped and our exeprience and time provided some value.
Maybe retirement is just the beginning in terms of putting our experience to work.
Sometimes people aren't sure what they'll do in retirement. Others have a pretty good idea. I was in the middle: I wasn't sure about my long-term plans, but there were a couple of things I knew I wanted to pursue early on.
We live in Fort Collins, Colorado where there are a lot of freight trains. Significant traffic disruptions occur daily and are a source of frustration for many. Before I retired, an article in the local newspaper highlighted a thought from our city manager lamenting the fact that there was no way for us to check our phones to obtain the status of nearby train traffic the way we're able to check the status of airline flights and the weather. He stated that the city couldn't solve the problem because railroad companies weren't willing to share schedule and location data. We, however, live on the edge of town and have a clear view of the tracks. It's easy for us to see (and often feel) when a train is going by when we look out a window.
The perfect retirement project was handed to me "on a silver platter", or in this case, via a newspaper article: Develop an automated system to notify users when a train is headed toward town. People could use the warning to "get onto the right side of the tracks" before the inevitable disruption occurred.
With lots of guidance from numerous friends who knew way more than I did about automation hardware and software, the train detection technology was developed. And since I hadn't been a software developer for over 35 years, it took quite a while and resulted in periodic bouts of frustration. On the up side, it turned out to be a cheap way to pass a lot of time. (You can read more about the Train Alert development process and web app here.) My wife was even pulled into the effort to help with the user interface and promotion efforts.
This project was started and finished just because we wanted to see if it could be done. However it also took some (pleasantly) unexpected turns:
One of the things I enjoy most about retirement is having the time to pursue things that sound fun or interesting. It's even more fun when those efforts lead to fun you never could have anticipated.