Seniors: Volunteer still going the extra mile after 25 years with helpline

When Walter Miller retired in 1986, he did what many retirees do: He sought out volunteer opportunities. Miller chose a demanding position — he began volunteering at the United Way 211 call center of San Francisco, helping people find housing, food and medical care — and he’s stuck with it. For 26 years.

“He’s committed, committed, committed,” said call center manager Maritza Villagomez of the 92-year-old. And on the rare occasions when he misses a volunteer shift, she added, he’ll make up the time by working extra another day.

United Way of the Bay Area honored Miller by presenting him with its “Exemplary Community Champion” award at its annual Community Impact Awards celebration in July.

Walter Miller is honored as “Exemplary Community Champion” by United Way of the Bay Area in July.

Villagomez called Miller the office “gem,” and described how he stands out during training sessions when new staff members listen to experienced call-takers.

“Walter listens to individuals and he doesn’t push his opinions,” she said. “He’s able to calm [callers] down very effectively. He has a really soothing, calm voice.” 

Miller — one of only a few volunteers who answers calls  — acknowledged that the position can be challenging.

“It can be frustrating, because you can’t solve everyone’s problems,” he said. “But when it works, it is a gratifying thing to help somebody connect with an appropriate referral.”

Miller’s wife, Judy, believes the volunteer position is a perfect fit, well-suited to her husband’s personality. She joked about how when they used to wait in line for the movies, her husband would always run into someone he knew and begin a conversation with them. 

“He knew many, many people; he was able to make connections for people, and that’s what gave him great satisfaction,” she said.

The couple, who reside in the Richmond District, married in July 1951, after Walter served in the Army during World War II. They are members of Congregation Emanu-El, where Walter — a native San Franciscan — was bar mitzvahed and confirmed.

He had a long career with the delicatessen supplier Bob Ostrow Company. After he retired from his position as manager there, he began volunteering two mornings a week at the 211 call center.

The volunteer work, as Villagomez explained, isn’t easy. 

“Sometimes you have to tell someone that there is no resource, sometimes you have to tell someone that there is no bed space for their child,” she said. “Sometimes we have to say that difficult ‘no.’ ”

The position is also demanding because operators have to keep track of a good number of resources — the call center covers an area from Santa Cruz County to Sonoma County. Miller said that callers are most often interested in finding shelter, food, clothing or job information. 

Like her husband, Judy Miller also has been a devoted volunteer for years. Among other things, she founded a nonprofit that provided college and career counseling to high school students, and served on the board of directors of Congregation Emanu-El.

In addition to his work at the call center, Walter Miller has volunteered at Cobb Elementary School, Roosevelt Middle School and the volunteer center in San Francisco. Overall, Judy explained, her husband simply couldn’t sit idly after he retired.

“He has a lot of energy,” she said. “He was never the type of person who was going to sit around and play bridge. He had to do something for somebody.”

George Altshuler
George Altshuler

George Altshuler is the rabbinic intern at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. He is on track to be ordained from Hebrew Union College in 2023. In 2012 and 2013, he worked as a calendar editor and staff writer in J.’s newsroom.