I had the pleasure of meeting Bertis Shankle, the Manager of Volunteer Programs for SAGE, when I took their volunteer orientation a couple months ago. He conducts these sessions every second Wednesday at the LGBT Community Center in Greenwich Village. I’m a big believer in the mission of SAGE and in creating visibility for older LGBT people in general, and was delighted when he agreed to this interview. – Mark McNease
Not everyone knows what SAGE is. Could you say a little about the organization and its mission?
BS: SAGE stands for Services and Advocacy for GLBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender) Elders. The mission is encapsulated in the title, to serve the older adult LGBT community through advocacy and services. We’re here to enrich the lives of this very important population.
You gave us a bit of personal history at the orientation. I know you started out as a volunteer yourself. What brought you to SAGE?
BS: I had heard about SAGE from several different people. My then-partner had suggested I do volunteer work just after 9/11, which allowed me to be more flexible with working, but kept me involved. I was his caregiver. He had Hodgkin’s disease and was doing chemotherapy. We traveled a lot and he slept about 12 hours a day. So I had lots of time to give. We parted ways just as my tenure began as the “Thursday Coffee Boy.” I worked my new job schedule around my regular gig at SAGE. I did that for a year, until my work schedule changed and I went to regular Monday through Friday. I also had a regular Lend-a-Hand assignment, which lasted a year and a half, until my Friend at Home passed away. (He already had a Friendly Visitor who did all the paperwork, so I got to visit regularly and enjoy Henry’s company just like a Friendly Visitor.)
You’re now the Manager of Volunteer Programs. What was the progression from making coffee early on to being in the position you have now?
BS: I came into the office three years ago to see the Volunteer Coordinator, Ryan. I had done sporadic events volunteering after my other two assignments ended. So I was just dropping in to see what was the next need. He said he was leaving to further his fine arts studies, and I should consider applying for his full-time, paid position. I considered it about 20 seconds and threw my hat into the ring. I had always loved it here.
I’m going to assume that managing volunteers is rewarding and also challenging. What are some of the realities of your job (are people reliable, for instance, do you get many cancellations, do you have to maintain a steady new supply of volunteers)?
BS: You assume correctly about rewards and challenges. I often refer to myself as the center of all love in the universe. I help people find positions they can really enjoy, so the volunteers thank me. The people that are receiving the benefits of their services thank me. And then the work gets done, and my bosses and coworkers thank me. The rewards are not small in that way.
But, yes, it has its challenges. It’s the nature of volunteering to get more cancellations than you would with a regular paid job. People have busy lives outside of our walls. I walked in those shoes, so I know that it can happen. We have to roll with the punches. I try to build in redundancy, but some of my projects I oversee are in Chelsea and my office is at the LGBT Community Center, so I sometimes wish I had a twin so I could be at two places at one time. But it runs pretty smoothly.
BS: Look to do what you love. A volunteer who is happy in her role will be of the best use to the organization they are hoping to serve. Rule number one of volunteering in my view is: Have a good time. I worked for a while in a recruitment advertising agency that tried to find the right person for every job, and it looked deep into each position to find the triggers that would attract the right candidate. I have to think on those terms, a little… but at a hundred miles an hour around here.
One thing I heard from others at the orientation, and that was a driving idea behind this site (lgbtSr.com) is that lgbt people over 50 often feel as if they’re being disappeared. Is there anything you could say to address that sense of diminishment as we age?
BS: That’s totally understandable. The gay magazines have youthful cover models, mostly shirtless, dancing, tanning, swimming. And mostly white males. How much of our lives is that, even at that age? How many of us ever fit that body type? So much more of what we are as a group is under-represented. But it’s also kind of like a wedge of cheese sitting in the produce aisle and crying, I’m so alone. If he were in the cheese aisle, he’d have a totally different experience. We are the cheese aisle for LGBT mature adults. Is that cheesy? That people feel diminished says they need an organization like SAGE and then need to work to find their niche here. We’re not all things to all people, but there are programs and groups and classes that address all types of people and the full range of interests. Not to knock the youth, we could all learn from one another. We do a lot of intergenerational programming. What I’m hoping is that people are going to have a better chance of finding like-minded people when they get involved at SAGE.
Lastly, what’s your hope for SAGE in the future?
BS: There are lots of great additions to our roster of services coming in the near future. Our executive director, Michael Adams, is a real visionary. But the best answer for what the future of SAGE needs can be boiled up into one word. You. Everyone has something to contribute. Not just as volunteers. Just by being a part of SAGE events, you add to the enjoyment. If you have needs, like social services or counseling, we grow as we serve our community. The more lives we touch, the more we are able to do.
We just had an event out on Cherry Grove to honor a longtime SAGE Volunteer Harold Seeley. He has done the decorations for our socials for about 22 years and been involved in the community for many years more than that. Harold is a leader, but first, Harold was a joiner. He came to an event, he rolled up his sleeves, he got involved. And his life has been so rich because he dared to do something. Harold is my hero right now. He’s battling some health issues, but he’s never put down his glue gun. You should have seen him out there on the island, among his people. He’s the reason we exist. I’m especially inspired right now. It’s a great time to be part of this community. Don’t get me started!
LGBT older people tend to experience higher rates of social isolation than their heterosexual counterparts, and they are more likely to be single, to live alone and to not have children or close family members to rely on for care giving. SAGE programs combat this isolation and help LGBT older people find support and services to improve their quality of life. Some of the programs we offer to LGBT older people in New York City include the Friendly Visitor program (where we match volunteers who pay regular visits to people who may be homebound); Lend-a-Hand visits (shorter-term, task-oriented errands and escorts); events that bring people out to mingle, classes to enrich people’s lives; and other programs to meet specific needs like care giving, job readiness and social services needs.