By Cody-Leigh Mullin

“Everybody says, ‘When are you going to grow up?’ And I say ‘Never! I never want to grow up!’”

Colleen DeCarlo, 70, laughs as she seals envelopes and stacks them in a pile on her desk. The envelopes will soon be sent to over 2,000 senior citizens in Santa Cruz County, letting them know that they will receive a weekly bag of produce. She reclines in her chair, looks out the window and watches as cars filling with brown bags leave on their routes.

DeCarlo is in good company, because for the 2,600 other senior citizens who volunteer at the Grey Bears, getting old isn’t about physical change — it’s about a state of mind.

The Grey Bears are a grassroots, nonprofit organization of seniors over the age of 55 who distribute donated fresh fruit to the senior citizen community of Santa Cruz County. The organization provides senior citizens with an opportunity to stay active while also giving them a chance to create change for their peers in the community.

Local seniors and college students have a history of working together through the Grey Bears. In 1973, two UC Santa Cruz students, Kristina Milliard and Gary Denny, who were aware of the senior community’s poor economic situation and happened to have a garden plot of food to spare, began a program that bagged food and delivered it to seniors who were not eligible for welfare or food stamps.

The Brown Bag Program, which today serves over 2,800 seniors each month, is completely funded by the Grey Bears. Over 800 of the regular recipients are unable to leave their own homes to get groceries, and are therefore called “shut-ins.” To ensure that the shut-ins receive their produce, the office organizes 100 routes that are driven by fellow seniors. The Grey Bears deliver over 1.5 million pounds of food annually to fellow senior citizens.

“We’ve been here for 35 years, and it all came from the university. It’s where we got our roots,” said Lynda Francis, executive director of the Grey Bears. “And we’re still rockin’ and rollin’!”

Ed Martinez, business development director, works with the Grey Bears and is passionate about the organization. In his office, which contains scattered collages of half-finished projects, colorful artwork, and large glossy pictures, Martinez seeks out avenues through which the Bears can extend their program in new and innovative directions.

“There is a value within all of this service,” Martinez said. “It’s a sense of purpose — it’s not a senior daycare program. It’s not just a volunteer opportunity — it counts. As long as an organization like the Grey Bears is around, we are going to honor our seniors and provide opportunities for them to serve their community and their fellow seniors in a way that has dignity and value.”

The Grey Bears’ campus, located in Santa Cruz, was constructed by the same volunteers who worked to get the Brown Bag Program off the ground. Ray Schultz, who joined the group in 1978 for the weekly brown bag given to volunteers, has since restored the property, which now serves as the county’s largest private recycling site. Even now, at age 87, Schultz visits the site weekly to encourage others.

“There are a lot of good friends here, nice people and lots of camaraderie,” Schultz said. “They do pretty good. They do what they can… I did what I could. Any way I can help out this outfit, I’ll do it.”

Although the program is multifaceted, the various components come together to benefit the bagging and distribution of food. A thrift store on the Grey Bears campus next to the brown bagging warehouse and recycling yard, purchased and renovated in 1986, generates revenue for the program. Thrift store manager Lyla Games, a veteran Grey Bear for 28 years, began working with her husband and has now found a comfortable place among the other volunteers in the warm and colorful thrift store.

“We have 45 volunteers who work here all week long, different ones every day, and they are just great gals,” Games said, as she looked around the store. “The ladies are just fantastic — they work their hearts out. They make everything so perfect. I can’t say enough things about the volunteers, I tell you. They work like they are getting paid.”

The dual component of the Brown Bag Program is the Santa Cruz Recycling Alliance Program (SCRAP), founded in 1992. At two locations, the Grey Bears keep over 15,000 tons of materials from the landfills annually, which saves the county money and makes a profit that is funneled back into the Brown Bag Program. Alongside the recycling sector, the Bears have also formed their own composting operation, which recycles unused produce to be made into quality compost. SCRAP employs only eight people in the entire operation, producing a small profit from the program.

Many local contributors either bring their recyclables to the site, or organize to have their recyclables picked up by the Grey Bears. SCRAP manager John Trocki advocates recycling through the Grey Bears, rather than through Waste Management, and correlates the issue to a cause that is dear to students’ hearts.

“The analogy could be drawn to the people sitting in the trees,” Trocki said. “[Tree-sitters] are there because trees are old. They respect the trees for how many years old they are, how long they’ve been there and how they’ve contributed to the environment. Well, if the kids could apply that here and bring their things to us, they’re supporting old people.”

Students and others in the community are able to request curbside recycling with the Grey Bears and, in turn, proceeds are used to assist the seniors in the program.

Veteran Grey Bears Ron and Carolyn Stevenson began volunteering 34 years ago at the Grey Bears’ annual Christmas dinner, but have since stayed on with a more permanent position. Within those years, the Stevensons created an electronic waste program, which is responsible for a large percentage of the organization’s revenue. Aside from breaking down and selling parts, Ron Stevenson rebuilds machines and gives them to seniors who are in need.

“We’re a good [money] maker now. We’ve made a lot of changes,” Stevenson said. “As with any nonprofit, it’s hard. So many businesses are going on — it’s an involving thing. We have good volunteers, we have good members, and we have good staff. It’s evolved.”

Seniors teach and take classes in cooking, computers and Spanish and English languages. Donna Merriman, who worked for years as a teacher, now teaches fellow seniors in a beginning computer class.

“The best part about this is that we are helping one another,” Merriman said. “It really is a great program.”

The bustling campus of the Grey Bears is kept buzzing from the early hours of the morning until late into the afternoon. Spunk, vigor and sass keep the engine that is the Grey Bears running, and plenty of it can be seen on campus, especially in the office where the Brown Bag operation is organized. The ladies in the office dance on the fine line that divides work and play, and through the years, have remained resolute that one comes with the other.

In an effort to raise money for the Brown Bag program, 12 women created a 2006 calendar in which they dressed in costume and posed for glamour shots. The ladies in the Grey Bear office, which overlooks the recycling yard, laugh and giggle as they recall the photo shoot in which they were dolled up with gloves, boas, corsets, ribbons and lace.

“We sold $350 worth of calendars at the fair that year,” DeCarlo said. “I haunted all the men until they bought one. I got the mayor of Watsonville to buy one and the firemen too. We just had a blast. During the shoot, we laughed for five straight hours.”

The Grey Bears have spurred on change that reaches farther than just Santa Cruz County. In 1992, the Grey Bears were a founding member of Food Organizations Organizing and Distributing Crops (F.O.O.D. Crops) which later transformed into Ag Against Hunger (AAH). Since then, AAH supplies the Bears with over 750,000 pounds of produce a year and is expanding as a statewide program.

The bagging itself occurs on Thursdays and Fridays in the main warehouse. Over 50 seniors come out to help with the process in which they stand in one long row, pass the bags down the line, deposit the produce, label them and then transport them to their final destinations. Laughter and conversation drift outside the warehouse, where drivers pull up to collect the bags on their way to their delivery routes. Senior drivers take on the over 100 routes five days out of the week.

While the program provides benefits for senior citizen members of the community, it also serves to benefit the members of the actual organization as well. Many seniors who volunteer with the Grey Bears do so for the payment of a brown bag for every 20 hours of volunteer work. Although a single bag of food seems meager, many volunteers, including DeCarlo, know that the bag takes a large burden off of their financial situation.

“I only get $870 a month. That’s all,” DeCarlo said. “By the time I pay my rent, my car insurance, my phone bill, and all the little bills that I have… I’m broke. I need a bed and I can’t even afford to get one.”

Along a typical Grey Bear route, drivers frequently deliver bags to local trailer parks. Multi-colored trailers of all sizes ornament the ground and serve as the residences of many brown bag recipients. Whirligigs and brightly painted lawn flamingos mark the residence of Ted Grossman, who has been receiving a weekly brown bag for three years. Grossman is just one of the many senior citizens who receives food each week.

Veteran Grey Bear Genevieve Lingua, who has been volunteering with the Bears since 1975, now receives a brown bag each week at her home. As the years pass, Lingua reaps the benefits of the Grey Bears’ service more and more. As she runs her weathered hands across old photographs of her and her companions working in the Grey Bear kitchen, she extends hope that the future of volunteering at the organization will be promising.

“I pray that the volunteers will be people who want to help and want to keep busy instead of just sitting home rocking in their chairs and doing nothing,” Lingua said. “That they’ll want to get out and help. I think the majority is like that, but it takes all kinds.”

Those who work on site at the Grey Bears campus thrive to create a place where seniors can live longer independently and to their fullest potential.

“We scrap our seniors now, and I hate it,” Martinez said. “When the founders discovered the simple act of feeding each other, of harvesting food that was going to be wasted, and repackaging it so shut-in seniors could have the benefit of fresh produce, they found this huge undercurrent of value.”

Grey Bear veterans are looking to the younger generations to play their part in the ever-changing, rapidly growing community, whether by shopping at the thrift store or simply donating to the Grey Bears.

By reaching back to the university students, the Grey Bears are trying to reconnect the bonds that were shared with students 35 years ago.

Now, as the Baby Boomer generation nears retirement, the Grey Bears encourage an alternative to the depressing trend of nursing homes and sedation that they have seen their contemporaries fall into. Before retirement, DeCarlo worked for a convalescent home and frequently witnessed the pitfalls of a stagnant retirement.

“I volunteer to help pay back for all the good things that have happened to me in my life,” DeCarlo said with a quiet smile as she sealed another envelope. “I can’t see staying home when you get older, especially if you are alone. Why would you want to stay home? It’s not good for people to stay home. They should be out and about and mixing with people. It gives them an incentive to go on.”

For the Grey Bears as a whole, laughter is essential, each day is a gift, and friends are not hard to come by. To the members, the Grey Bears isn’t just a volunteer opportunity.

Lingua sits back in her chair and folds her hands in her lap. She holds a picture of herself in her hands, sees herself smiling back from within the Grey Bear kitchen, and gives a wide smile. Lingua has learned many things in her 97 years, but her influence on and from the Grey Bears has given her invaluable wisdom.

“I think what the world needs today is people helping people,” Lingua said. “That’s what you do.”