Stan Roth: Lifelong Leader Teaches Advocacy to Elders
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The Energizer Bunny has nothing on Stan Roth. At 70, Roth has officially retired twice. And he still has three or four jobs, depending on which ones you count.
Currently, his paid job is with Disability Advocates in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The organization is collaborating with other nonprofits and foundations to engage people 50+ in efforts to reduce homelessness. “We’re trying to engage experienced adults in becoming advocates. One of my focuses is on getting older adults involved in preventing homelessness,” says Roth.
Roth also has a long history of volunteer leadership with Advocates for Senior Issues (better known as Senior Advocates), a 300-strong member organization that is widely recognized for its influence on local and statewide public policy affecting seniors. He currently serves on the executive committee and co-chairs the legislative committee and healthcare task force. “We help people speak up for themselves,” says Roth.
Last spring, the groups were instrumental in narrowly passing a $15.6 million increase in the annual tax millage for public transportation in Grand Rapids, including improved access for people with disabilities.
It’s not easy to separate Roth’s paid job with Disability Advocates from his leadership work with Senior Advocates or his volunteer work with the Micah Center. The center is an ecumenical advocacy group working for social justice, which includes housing and transportation issues.
“What I’m doing is creating a posse of people to call on and bring together when we have an opportunity to advance an issue that’s important to all of us,” said Roth.
In the 2006 election, Roth’s efforts helped to win an increase in the Kent County Senior Millage, which funds services to elders. In 2011, the local Area Agency on Aging distributed $6.5 million from the tax to 44 service providers.
Last fall, Roth received the Congressional Medal of Merit Award for Seniors from former U.S. Representative Vern Ehlers. In large part, the honor came for his advocacy on behalf of older adults.
(Did we mention that Roth volunteers in his spare time as an usher at Notre Dame football games—at every home game for the past 11 years?)
Roth’s post-retirement career shows a clear trend. He just can’t stay retired. A decade ago, Roth retired from employment with the state of Michigan, where he spent 23 years managing child-care licensing in West Michigan. Then he joined the Diocese of Grand Rapids as director of stewardship, developing programs in the region’s 86 Catholic parishes to encourage parishioners to share their blessings with others. Five years later, he retired again but then found a job with a gardening company. When he was ready to cut back on gardening in the summer heat, he stepped forward for the job at Disability Advocates.
No two days are alike in Roth’s work life. One day last May, he helped organize a busload of people with disabilities and older adults to visit the State Capitol in Lansing for Older Michiganians Day. “We want people to know they can go talk to a senator, even sit in his or her chair if they want to do so,” says Roth. “We want people to see that standing up for their ideas isn’t so hard to do.”
Just a few weeks ago, Roth teamed up with the city’s foreclosure response team and brought another posse to the Grand Rapids City Commission to push an ordinance that would expand public oversight over an increasing number of vacant properties. “Our goals are to have more safe shelters for single families and to protect the property values of the seniors who live in those neighborhoods,” Roth says. Some of the speakers at the meeting have taken advocacy training in Roth’s program.
On another recent day, Roth and some colleagues from Goodwill Industries went to visit homeless veterans living in a downtown hotel. “These guys need something to do while they look for work,” says Roth. “One man said that our visit lifted his heart because he hadn’t felt like he had anything to offer for a long time.”
What launched Roth on his life of service and advocacy? The oldest of eight children, Roth said he always wanted to make a difference. He attended a Catholic seminary taught by Jesuits. “The Jesuits think we’re here to make a difference.” Roth was ordained in 1967 during the height of the civil rights movement and began teaching school in poverty-stricken East St. Louis. He became part of Concerned Clergy, a group that advocated affirmation of the institutional church’s commitment to impoverished inner-city neighborhoods during a time when affluent people flocked to the suburbs. Lacking support from the institutional church, Roth decided priesthood wasn’t the right fit for him. He was laicized in the early 1970s. He later married and started a family.
“I’ve been swimming upstream a fair amount of my life,” says Roth. “That’s okay, because that is what you sometimes need to do to get change.”
How does Roth see his future? “I hope it’s as long as my dad’s.” Roth recently helped celebrate his father’s 96th birthday. “Dad has stayed very active until recently.” Roth says he might cut back a little on gardening and hopes to attend more of Notre Dame’s away games. He also will stay active on senior issues. “I want to make sure our voices are heard.”