Carol Ventresca is aware many people assume seniors and computers don't mix. And for her, that assumption couldn't be further from the truth.

As the executive director of Employment for Seniors, 4300 E. Broad St., Columbus, "everything about our program revolves around the computer system," Ventresca said, and she is frustrated when people are dismissive of seniors involved with technology.

"When employers tell me older adults and seniors can't do things involving computers, my first response is, 'I gave out 5,000 job referrals last year, all via computers,' " she said.

For Ventresca and a plethora of others, Gary Sams is the perfect example of the effect seniors can have when they harness the power of technology.

The Westerville resident is Senior of the Year and will be honored at the Young at Heart event, sponsored by The Columbus Dispatch and ThisWeek Community News, on Thursday, July 19, at Villa Milano Banquet & Conference Center, 1630 Schrock Road, Columbus.

Sams, 78, is a retired electrical engineer who worked for AEP for 40 years. He said he "grew up" alongside computers and has been fascinated by them since "their early inception."

"My career was in engineering," he said, "but my passion on the side was working with computers."

When he retired from AEP, Sams began a private consulting firm, helping clients -- mainly other seniors and small businesses -- operate and learn to use their computers.

After 17 years, Sams' client list has expanded far beyond those individuals and small businesses. He now serves as the network administrator for Employment for Seniors, works with the Westerville Area Resource Ministry and handles technology at his church, Bethel International United Methodist Church.

However, Sams isn't paid at any of those three positions. He serves on a volunteer basis and he simply likes helping and learning, he said.

"I like helping people in whatever capacity," he said. "So this is just a way to be of help to people."

And for those organizations, Ventresca said, Sams' work is invaluable.

"We couldn't afford ... to pay someone to do all the work he's doing," she said. "He makes sure that that computer system is the resource we need without impinging on our services and also mentors us in our roles so that we can be more efficient and be more effective. He's not forcing anything down our throat. He's teaching us gently."

That gentle teaching method has become a hallmark of Sams' work and largely is a product of how much he enjoys what he does.

Even with his longtime clients from his consulting business, Sams said, he charges only a "nominal fee" and largely does the work "for the fun and occupation of it."

"But I don't want people to feel like they're a charity case by my working for nothing," he said.

Sams said he doesn't see what he does as a job.

He said his sense of curiosity and interest in learning about computers has been a constant since he was young and he sees his work as an extension of that.

"It's kind of halfway between a business and a hobby," he said.

But the satisfaction Sams gets from his work motivates him, as well. He said he enjoys the "overall sense of accomplishment" he gets from the jobs and enjoys seeing them through.

He said he enjoys being able to look back on the progress both he and his clients have made.

Sams said he remembers where his three major organizations were when he began and laughed as he recalled taking them "from the primitive to the advanced."

"When I first started with them, I think all three of them had one computer with a dial-up connection through the phone line to an AOL account," he said. "So I've helped them evolve from that to now, where you have network and servers and multiple computers and internet and all that."

Along the way, Sams said, he could be overbearing and get frustrated with his clients.

But Ventresca said she never has seen him "put the hammer down."

Instead, she said, Sams is "one of the most wonderful people you could ever meet" and is the type to be kind and helpful while he does his work.

"What I love about him most of all, from the first day I met him, is that he's the kind of technical expert who wants to make sure you know what you're doing with the computer system," she said. "(He helps) you understand it and you know he's there to be a resource."

As a fellow senior, Sams said, he knows he is "able to relate with the older people" better than others in the field of technology and he strives to make them comfortable.

"I have a number of individuals that I help out when they need help with their computers, and a lot of them are also retired people," he said. "I have the advantage, I guess, that I tend not to talk over their heads like some of the younger guys might do.

"I tell people that, to me, what I do is more of a hobby than a business. A lot of people put a lot of money into their hobbies. People pay me for mine."

Although he loves to travel with his wife, Nancy -- the couple just returned from a cruise -- he still enjoys his work as much as anything, Sams said.

He said he loves to "learn new things" and sees his technology career as the best way to "stave off seniority."

And as the computers he works with continue to change, Sams said, he will stick right with them, as he's done since he was young.

"The technology is always advancing," he said. "If you don't advance with it, you get left behind."

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