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Disaster relief: senior citizens joining in

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Stereotypically too bent with age to mow the lawn or holed up in a cheerless nursing home lonely and depressed, senior citizens are often pictured on the receiving end of community service. But, according to two national studies, somewhere between 23 and 73 percent of older adults actively volunteer every year.

Marteen and Wiley Blankenship, who are 69 and 70 years old, have traveled the world cleaning up after disasters and caring for survivors. A hurricane took them to Louisiana, a flood to Atlanta and, most recently, April 27's tornado sent them to Alabama. Wrapped up in matching yellow raincoats, gray hair tucked up into caps, the couple took a break last week from their work dishing out food to tornado survivors to chat with the New York Times.

"Some couples spend retirement playing the nation's best golf courses or hopping cruise ships," New York Times reporter Kim Severson reported. "Not Marteen and Wiley Blankenship. They collect disasters the way other retirees collect passport stamps."

While senior citizens are less likely to volunteer than younger Americans, when they do, "they devote many more hours to the effort," the Senior Journal reported. According to data gathered by the Corporation for National & Community Service, adults 65 and older put in an average of 1.6 billion hours of service annually. More than half of the senior citizens who volunteer do so on a regular basis, the American Association of Retired Persons reported.

There are a lot of reasons seniors volunteer, surveys indicate. For many, it fulfills a desire to help and acts as means to stay healthy and active. Nearly half of senior citizen service hours were logged in religious pursuits, however, according to the Corporation for National & Community Service AARP's study, found older Americans who regularly attended church services volunteered at the highest rates.

The Blankenships, who live in Decatur, Alabama, teamed up with the Southern Baptist disaster ministry to serve tornado victims. Inside a massive mobile kitchen capable of feeding 20,000, the couple served up chili and Salisbury steak. Then they packed it into Red Cross vans and sent it out into the countryside.

The couple told the New York Times they "did it all for God."

"I thought when we were done working that I wanted to travel," Wiley Blankenship said. "I just never thought it'd look like this. But it's our calling."

Email: estuart@desnews.com, Twitter: elizMstuart