Older adults who volunteer in troubled urban schools
not only improve the educational experience of children but
realize meaningful improvements in their own mental and
physical health, according to researchers at the Johns
Hopkins Medical Institutions.
The Johns Hopkins investigators base their conclusion
on the first randomized clinical trial testing the health
benefits of participating in an established volunteer
program called Experience Corps, in Baltimore.
"While our results are preliminary, what we found is a
'win-win' for everyone involved," said the study's lead
author, Linda P. Fried, director of the Center on Aging and
Health at Johns Hopkins. "Giving back to your community may
slow the aging process in ways that lead to a higher
quality of life in older adults," she said.
"Physical, cognitive and social activity increased in
volunteers, suggesting potential for Experience Corps and
similar programs to improve health for an aging population
while simultaneously improving educational outcomes for
children," she said. "It potentially could have great
social impact if taken to a large scale."
The study is published in the April issue of the
Journal of Urban Health, which includes companion studies
by Johns Hopkins researchers that found Experience Corps to
be cost-effective and also detailed the educational boon to
Started in 1996, Experience Corps is an award-winning
program that places teams of older adults in urban public
schools as tutors and mentors. Currently, more than 1,000
Experience Corps members are volunteering in 100 elementary
and middle schools in 18 cities across the country. But the
program also was designed to help adults keep healthy, the
Johns Hopkins researchers said.
"Evidence is mounting that remaining active and
engaged is beneficial as one ages, but our society has not
developed approaches that support such activity for the
broad spectrum of older adults," Fried said. "That's why we
were eager to see if this program might work to provide
To test in a scientifically valid method whether
Experience Corps improves key aging risk factors declines
in physical, cognitive and social activity, a research team
designed a two-year pilot study that compared 128
Experience Corps volunteers, ages 60 to 86, with a control
Participants in the study, predominantly
African-American women, volunteered at six Baltimore public
schools, helping children in kindergarten to grade three.
The volunteers were organized into teams and worked in the
schools 15 hours per week, usually over three to four days.
They were trained to help children improve their reading
skills, pick out books and read; solve problems; and play
cooperatively. A stipend of $150 to $200 a month was
offered to the volunteers to reimburse for expenses.
The majority, almost 88 percent, said they signed up
either because they loved children or wanted to help them.
Of the rest, about 11 percent said they wanted to make a
difference in their own lives or help themselves "feel
good," and only 2 percent said they volunteered to "stay
Most of the volunteers, 71 percent, had a high school
education, and 14 percent used a cane.
To determine any health advantages that came with
participation, the researchers evaluated the control and
intervention groups before and after the trial. They found
that 98 percent of participants in the intervention group
reported being satisfied with their experience, and 80
percent returned the following year. Such a high retention
rate reflects the "health promotion potential" of
Experience Corps, the researchers said.
The investigators also found evidence for short-term
change in health outcomes. Among them:
* At follow-up, 44 percent of Experience Corps
participants reported feeling stronger, compared with 18
percent of controls, and there was a 13 percent increase in
those who reported their strength as very good to
excellent, versus a 30 percent decline among controls.
* Cane use decreased in 50 percent of users in the
intervention group, compared with 20 percent in the control
group. Falls also decreased.
* In terms of social activity, Experience Corps
volunteers reported a significant increase, compared with a
decline in the control group, in the number of people they
felt they could turn to for help.
* In measuring cognitive benefits to participants,
the researchers said that increases in cognitive activities
in the school were not offset by a decrease in book reading
and other such mental activities at home. TV viewing,
considered the most common low-intensity activity, declined
by 4 percent in volunteers and increased by 18 percent in
the control group. "In contrast to other programs that
target health care beneficiaries, the Experience Corps
program is designed to attract all adults, including those
less likely to participate in formal health-promotion
programs," Fried said. "We show it can lead to meaningful
short-term improvement in healthy behaviors for older
adults while they, at the same time, offer social capital
that is highly valued," Fried said.
While Experience Corps may be expensive for the
short-term health improvements it offers volunteers, when
potential benefits for students and possible long-term
benefits are factored in, the program could be highly
cost-effective, the Johns Hopkins researchers said.
This second study, published as a companion to the
Johns Hopkins pilot study of the health benefits inherent
in the Experience Corps program, found cost per volunteer
(assuming 500 volunteers were enrolled) was $3,613, or
about $7 per hour of volunteer time. Short-term
improvements in older adult health resulted in medical care
cost savings of $273 per volunteer.
When long-term benefit for students was factored in,
the program became fiscally sound, said lead author Kevin
Frick, of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public
Health. "If only 12 students who would not have graduated
otherwise eventually graduate, the program becomes
cost-effective or cost-saving."
In another related study, the Experience Corps program
was found to lead to selective improvements in student
reading, academic achievement and classroom behavior while
not burdening the school staff, said researchers who
studied 1,194 children from six urban elementary
At follow-up, third-grade children whose schools were
randomly selected for the program had significantly higher
scores on a standardized reading test than children in the
control schools, and office referrals for classroom
misbehavior decreased by about half in the Experience Corps
schools but remained the same in the control schools.
"Taken together, the results from this pilot trial
lead us to conclude that the Experience Corps Baltimore
program can potentially make an important difference in the
lives of young children and their schools, even after a
relatively brief exposure period," said the study's lead
researcher, George W. Rebok, of the School of Public
The lead study was funded by the Retirement Research
Foundation, Erickson Foundation, State of Maryland, State
of Maryland Department of Education, Baltimore City Public
Schools, Baltimore City Commission on Aging and Retirement
Education, Johns Hopkins Prevention Center and Corporation
for National Service. Co-authors are Michelle Carlson,
Kevin Frick, Joel Hill, George Rebok, James Tielsch, Scott
Zeger and Barbara Wasik, all from Johns Hopkins; Teresa
Seeman, from the University of California, Los Angeles;
Marc Freedman, from Civic Ventures; and Sylvia McGill, from
the Greater Homewood Community Corporation, an umbrella
community organization in northern Baltimore.