In his small kitchen, Emam Saber, 77, picks up a raw New York Strip steak with a fork and gently lays it in a pan of steaming hot oil. The meat sizzles loudly, the first of 30 steaks he will be cooking that afternoon for a charity event.
“I always cook for charity. I don’t charge anything,” said Saber, a former chef who worked at iconic hotels and a French restaurant in San Francisco.
Now in retirement, Saber pays for his food donations with his $660 Social Security check and income his wife, Hewida, 55, earns from running a daycare out of their apartment.
Emam Saber looks out the window of the modest apartment he cooks community meals of out several times a week. He and his wife are longtime residents of the Nob Hill neighborhood in San Francisco. (Sean Havey for California Dream)
Since arriving in the city in 1969 from his native Egypt, Saber said he has regularly cooked meals for people at local mosques, nonprofit organizations, churches and schools.
Volunteering often provides older adults with a sense of purpose and connection to others that is linked to physical and emotional health benefits, especially after they’ve left the workforce, according to a review of research by the Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal agency. Likewise, communities can greatly benefit from the accumulated skills and experience that a growing pool of retirees in California offer, experts say.
About 6 million senior citizens — ages 65 and older — live in California, more than in any other state in the nation. That population is expected to increase rapidly over the next 10 years as baby boomers age.
Serving others brings joy to Saber, who admits he suffers from arthritis and knee pain. But around the kitchen, the retired chef forgets his health issues and moves with agility and precision — trimming fat off meat with a butcher knife and cooking a vegetable stew in a big aluminum pot.
“I love cooking,” said Saber. “And I like to help my community. I’ve been doing that for 50 years, and I hope I’ll do that until I die.”
Emam Saber slices potatoes for a meal he is preparing for a local mosque. He said his love of cooking began when he was 7 year old in his native Cairo, Egypt. (Sean Havey for California Dream)
Elderly Californians who are not working or seeking employment have one of the lowest volunteer rates, attributable to shrinking social networks, fixed incomes and declining health, according to the 2017-21 California Plan on Aging. About 22% of seniors donate their time compared to nearly 30% for people ages 35 to 44, the state report finds.
California's Volunteerism Trails National Rates
California has 7.4 million volunteers, the largest number of any state. However, California also has one of the lowest rankings for volunteerism in the country and ranks below 38 other states on a number of key indicators, including overall volunteer hours and retention rates.
U.S. rate California rate
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Older adults represent “one of the state’s great resources” that has been overlooked and underappreciated by society, said Marc Freedman, CEO of Encore.org. The organization helps older adults use their skills to solve problems in their communities, through volunteering or a second career.
“There’s a mismatch between the growing talent in the older population and our perceptions of what this group has to offer,” said Freedman, who is 60. “They are cut off from opportunities to continue to contribute when, in fact, many people have a lifetime of experience and are eager to put it to use not just in ways that are personally meaningful, but that means something beyond themselves.”
Community is number one. The attachment to a close knit community is so important to feel human, to feel alive.
~ Emam Saber, Retired chef and community volunteer
Freedman said as people grow older, they tend to become more empathetic and gifted at the “human touch.” As California faces daunting challenges in areas such as education and health care, seniors could provide solutions if the state made it easier for them to put to work their free time, skills and interests.
“We have so much need for experienced talent to meet the needs that the state faces and that we'll never be able to pay for through salaried positions,” said Freedman, who recently authored a book called “How to Live Forever: The Enduring Power of Connecting the Generations.”
For Saber, volunteering to cook has taken on an added importance in his retirement, as friends and relatives have moved away or died. His love of cooking and seeing families enjoy food together comes from his childhood in Cairo. He was one of 19 children, he said.
Saber remembers, as a 7-year old, begging his mother to let him into the kitchen. The women in his family often gathered with neighbors to cook and share large meals.
“At that time no men were allowed in the kitchen. But I was the only one allowed to go in because I'm so crazy about cooking,” he chuckled.
Since moving to San Francisco, Saber has spent time recreating that bustling family feel from his upbringing.
Emam Saber, 77, cooks at his San Francisco home. Saber, who is now retired, used to work as a chef at San Francisco hotels, including the St. Francis and Fairmont. (Sean Havey for California Dream)
He came to California as a young agricultural engineer with plans to earn a master’s degree, but soon realized he didn’t have enough money to pay for his education and began working in kitchens. His first jobs were at small hotels in San Francisco and later at the renowned St. Francis and Fairmont, he said.
Now, five of his six children live in the city, and visit him and his wife often at their Nob Hill neighborhood flat where they have lived for nearly five decades. Saber said he and his wife stay in the apartment because they don’t want to leave their community.
“Community is number one. The attachment to a close knit community is so important to feel human, to feel alive. God created us to be around each other,” he said.
But many able-bodied seniors may live alone and feel lonely and isolated, which can lead to life-threatening consequences, according to a Health Resources and Services Administration report.
While connecting with others through volunteering can work as an antidote to the “loneliness epidemic” among seniors, nonprofits often lack volunteering opportunities that attract older adults, said Greg Baldwin, CEO of the Oakland-based VolunteerMatch.org.
VolunteerMatch connected about 1.5 million people with volunteer opportunities nationwide in 2018.
Challenges to volunteering for older adults include the cultural notion that retirees should “put their feet up, sit by the pool and drink margaritas,” said Baldwin. But it can also be a challenge for seniors to find volunteering opportunities that draw them in.
“Volunteering still suffers from a lot of low expectations,” Baldwin said. “And so nonprofits won't build programs around finding super-talented volunteers. They'll tend to build their programs too often around kind of the lowest common denominator.”
Emam Saber serves a meal he volunteered to buy and prepare for a mosque in Alameda. “I take care of my community,” said the 77-year old retired chef. “I really enjoy seeing families, neighbors eating together.” (Sean Havey for California Dream)
Baldwin said that while younger people are more willing to support a cause they care about through menial volunteer jobs, such as stuffing school supplies in backpacks, older adults tend to be more discerning and looking for ways to use their career skills. That’s why many seniors are drawn to mentoring programs, he said.
“We all want to make a meaningful contribution. But the more skills and experiences you have, the more you feel like you have something that you'd like to be able to give back,” said Baldwin. “Older people want to believe that their time is being well spent and that they are making a difference.”
Around San Francisco, Emam Saber is known by many as the guy who will volunteer to cook meals every evening during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, or for a baby shower. For years, Saber prepared a Christmas dinner at St. Anthony’s Foundation, an organization serving 2,400 meals per day to the homeless.
“What sticks with me the most when I think about Emam is his generosity and joyful spirit,” said Lydia Bransten, who manages the dining room at St. Anthony’s.
She fondly remembers that Saber would arrive in his van and prepare for St. Anthony staffers a Middle Eastern feast of chicken, rice with almonds, fish, red meat and a polenta dessert with rose water and honey.
Saber also would bring people from his mosque to the party at St. Anthony’s, which Bransten said led the organization to begin cooking for the nearby Islamic Center during Ramadan.
“He brings to his cooking and his meals this love of community and this sense that through sharing a meal with another human being, you build relationship; and it's those relationships that keep us together in the end.”