Sheriffs value more senior volunteers

Forsyth County deputies sometimes jest with volunteer worker Harold Adair about being just a button-pusher at the jail.

The 71-year-old has a ready comeback: "Hey, you get what you pay for."

Adair has proven his worth for the past 19 years by pushing buttons to let people through the controlled gates of the jail, taking telephone calls, acting as a receptionist, a typist and an all-around helper. Sheriff Ted Paxton values Adair's hours of service at about $300,000 through the years.

"There are some days when it's so crazy with the phones, if we didn't have him I think we'd close the door and go home," said Maj. Tom Wilson of the Forsyth County Sheriff's Office.

Around Atlanta, other sheriffs' offices are increasingly turning to senior citizens like Adair to fill gaps left by hiring freezes and budget cuts. The Cobb County Sheriff's Office has had a volunteer program made up mostly of retirees since 1996. The DeKalb County Sheriff's Office implemented the Thomas Brown Senior Volunteer Program in 2007. Its 14 members provide 90 hours of manpower per month -- the equivalent of $1,754 in cost savings for the department, said agency spokeswoman Tressa Washington.

And while the Fulton County Sheriff's Department has no such program, officials there say they are looking into starting one.

Gwinnett County is kicking off a Seniors in Action program this year.

Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway said he came up with the idea to start recruiting senior citizen volunteers as he looked for ways to save money and improve service.

Only one person has signed up so far. The department is waiting to get four or five volunteers before moving forward with mandatory background checks and orientation, Conway said. The volunteers will wear ID badges and special shirts so they are easily identifiable. They will not work directly with the inmate population for safety reasons.

Conway wants to put seniors to work answering phone calls or monitoring inmates' telephone conversations at the jail for security threats.

"We've got a huge senior population in Gwinnett that have talents that aren't being utilized," Conway said.

Barbara McClellan, 74, the first volunteer for Seniors in Action, is a retired attorney and former state administrative law judge. She signed up after a deputy visited her Best Friends Club meeting at a senior center in Gwinnett last month.

She said what appealed to her about volunteering was "mainly that they want us, that they need us." McClellan also hopes to one day get paid for the work, so she can pad her retirement savings account.

The Cobb County Sheriff's Office started its Volunteers in Partnership Program (VIPs) in 1996 with seven people who were all senior citizens. It has since grown to 35 members, primarily retirees with a few younger volunteers as well. The VIPs have contributed more than 100,000 hours of service to date, according to agency spokeswoman Nancy Bodiford. They assist in bonding, visitation, the mail room, answering phones and clerical duties.

Chief Deputy Lynda Coker said the department has not realized a savings that is quantifiable, since it would not hire employees to do the tasks of the volunteers. However, the helpers make everyone's job easier.

"The nature of what we do is more than we can handle on any day anyway," Coker said. "We do the best we can. It's just a help to have more people involved."

The Fulton County Sheriff's Office is looking into starting a program, spokeswoman Tracy Flanagan said.

"We would appreciate the contributions of mature citizens who would bring a unique perspective to our agency," Flanagan said. "It would be wonderful to find volunteer interpreters to offer assistance in various capacities."

Adair, in Forsyth County, says he feels as if the deputies appreciate him, even though he can't do some of the things he used to and even though some days he doesn't feel so well.

"I am kind of old, and I've got some physical problems, but nothing that won't keep me from doing what I want to do," Adair said. "As long as they'll put up with me, I’m going to try to finish 20 years out and then I'll quit."

"Of course," he chuckled, "I'll have no retirement benefits."