LeadingAge Magazine · July/August 2013 • Volume 03 • Number 04

Honoring Long Lives and Commitments to Service

June 22, 2013 | by The Members of LeadingAge

The latest in our series on the remarkable men and women who are the focus of the work, and the staff that do the work, of LeadingAge members.

LeadingAge magazine thanks the many LeadingAge members who wrote the stories included in this article. To contribute more stories of remarkable elders and the staff who serve them, contact Editor Gene Mitchell at GMitchell@LeadingAge.org or 202-508-9424.

Garden Spot Village, New Holland, PA
Whether she is matching volunteers with residents who need spiritual and emotional support, bringing honor students in to gather oral histories from residents or organizing an impromptu social outing, Carol Wendel helps make Garden Spot Village an extraordinary place to live.

Since January 2005 Wendel has volunteered to coordinate Caring Connections, a volunteer program that serves as a ministry to complement Garden Spot Village’s mission “to enrich the lives of older adults as an expression of Christ’s love.” Volunteers provide purposeful and intentional visits to those in need—perhaps someone diagnosed with a terminal illness, a caregiver for a spouse who has dementia or someone who has lost a loved one.

“Sometimes it’s bringing the word of God to them. Sometimes it’s just listening and letting them know someone cares,” says Wendel, who has a background in nursing and served as executive director of a senior center before moving to Garden Spot Village in 2003. “’Bringing life to life’ is the way I look at it.”

At any given point, she is coordinating some 40 volunteers and many more care recipients. Over the years, she has helped provide comprehensive training for more than 100 new Caring Connections volunteers. She also organizes a quarterly lunch where volunteer caregivers can connect and exchange ideas, and she has been instrumental in expanding the program to include high school students and other volunteers from off campus. With her leadership and people skills, she has helped create powerful bonds that enrich both caregiver and receiver.

- Scott Miller, chief marketing officer, Garden Spot Village

Spanish Cove Senior Housing Community (Volunteers of America), Louisville, KY
Mary Higgins spent most of her career working in health care in Louisville, KY, where she provided patients in financial distress with options and services to pay for their medical treatment. She never expected that she would find herself in crisis and in need of help.

After retiring to Myrtle Beach, SC, Mary began helping neighbors in her HUD-subsidized apartment complex with shopping and cleaning, and often just provided them with company. She felt at peace.

Things changed dramatically in November 2011 when a routine colonoscopy found cancerous cells. Mary made a quick decision to move back to Louisville to be near family for treatment. Needing to act quickly, she sold or gave away all her furniture and set out for Louisville with her remaining belongings in her car. Her family in Louisville was not able to provide a place for her to stay, so a friend had offered to share her apartment until she got settled.

Unfortunately, that friend’s mental health issues forced Mary to move out after just a week, and without a refund of the remaining three weeks of the month’s rent she had already paid. She gathered her belongings and drove away to a nearby parking lot, trying to process what just happened. “I cried harder than I had ever cried in my life,” she says. “I never ever thought I would be homeless. I was so scared.”

With nowhere to go, few possessions, and very little money, Mary received the call that she needed. An apartment had become available at Volunteers of America’s Spanish Cove Senior Housing Community—a place she had enquired about when planning her move—and she could move in immediately. She was relieved, but also concerned because she did not have the money needed for the deposit, first month’s rent, or even furniture to fill the apartment.

She explained her situation to staff at the complex and was referred to multiple community services that provided her with financial assistance for a security deposit, the first month’s rent, and a one-month supply of groceries. She even got help furnishing her apartment. On Dec. 20, 2011, Mary moved into her new place—just in time to enjoy the holidays in a warm, comfortable new residence.

“This is a safe place to live and I know I have truly been blessed,” Mary says. “It is a permanent home with rent I can afford and everything I need nearby.”

Mary says she loves her new home. She has joined the residents’ association, and has planned activities including movie, entertainment, and game nights for her fellow residents. And Mary received great news about her health: Her cancerous polyps could be removed through a minimally invasive procedure, and required no further treatment. Today Mary is happy, healthy, and enjoying life.

“Until you are homeless you don’t realize how it feels, how humiliating it can be,” she says. “If it had not been for Volunteers of America’s help, I do not know where I would be.”

- Natasha Ofosu, program manager, housing services, Volunteers of America

Reformed Presbyterian Home, Pittsburgh, PA
The Reformed Presbyterian Home congratulates Christiane Ugiranyina on getting her nursing degree from the Community College of Allegheny County in 2011 and for passing her board examinations in 2012. Ugiraniyina declares how thankful she is for the support she received from her colleagues. Our employees on all nursing shifts encouraged her throughout her academic journey and helped her to achieve her educational goals.

Originally from Rwanda, Ugiraniyina fled the war-torn country in 2000 to attend college in Pittsburgh. She married a fellow Rwandan, Laurien, and, after a few years in Pittsburgh, moved to Florida. Upon their arrival, they experienced the wrath of Hurricane Katrina, with the force of the winds blowing the roof off of their house. Luckily, Ugiraniyina’s husband had insisted that she, pregnant with their first child, come with him to work that night to be safe, thus missing the direct hit!

Eventually, the family found their calling back in Pittsburgh. There were distractions along the way, as it was difficult to manage raising a family and pursue her course of study. But, as Ugiraniyina remarks, “There will always be distractions when trying to move forward. I saw that other moms could do it so I could too.”

Ugiraniyina’s daughter sums it up best in last year’s Mother’s Day card for her mom: “My mom is so special. She takes me to the park. She teaches my brother. And, she studies for her exams!”

- Rebecca King, director of marketing and public relations, Reformed Presbyterian Home

Abernethy Laurels, Newton, NC
J.C. "Papa" Danner recently celebrated his 105th birthday surrounded by his family and friends at a party they planned for him at Abernethy Laurels.

Danner, born and raised in Hickory, NC, has nine children, 18 grandchildren, 31 great grandchildren, and 10 great-great grandchildren. For several decades the Hickory community knew Danner for his love and passion for farming and machinery. As an avid outdoorsman, Danner spent his younger years hunting, repairing lawn mowers, plowing fields, and planting gardens.

Members of his family shared that there wasn't much that he couldn't do or fix. "My dad had such a strong work ethic. There were times when he walked several miles one way to get to a job," says daughter Elsa Danner.

Still able to voice his interest in tractors, Danner said his birthday wishes this year were to see a tractor one more time as well as to have all his family together. Little did Danner know his close-knit family planned a large surprise birthday party for him with nearly 60 people in attendance.

With the help of a friendly neighbor and tractor enthusiast, the staff at Abernethy Laurels arranged for a 1953 John Deere tractor to visit the 105-year-old at the retirement community on his birthday.

"Mr. Danner surprised all of us when he was able to tell us parts of the tractor and their uses," says Kim Cloer, director of social services at Abernethy Laurels. "He was absolutely thrilled and overcome with joy when he realized that the tractor had come for his birthday."

Everyone seems to want to know what his secret is to living so long. When asked what he contributes his longevity to, Danner is quick to say that serving the Lord is the one and only reason he is celebrating 105 years of life.

- Shaylyn Ladd. director of public relations, United Church Homes & Services

St. Ann’s Community, Rochester, NY
St. Ann’s Community hosted a “Centenarian Salute” on May 30 to honor 11 residents who, by the end of 2013, will have lived for 100 years or more. At the celebration, a biography for each centenarian was shared by a family member, friend or staff member, and a video presentation displayed photographs of the guests of honor. The stories presented were fascinating, as these centenarians lived through great historical events and the evolution of American society, the economy, government and culture.



Courtney Pierce, recreation therapist, says, “What an accomplishment! We want to honor them and show them how much we respect them as well.” She added that this is her favorite event each year.

The centenarians we saluted—in an annual event we’ve held for more than 25 years—included:



  • Eva “Winnie” Guild, 100 years old. Born Apr. 29, 1913 in Falls Creek, PA. Guild’s most sage advice is for people to be good Americans.
  • Mary Steve, 102 years old. Born Nov. 8, 1911 in Palermo, Sicily. She immigrated to the United States when she was three. One of her major accomplishments was her faithful involvement in the Catholic Daughters of America.
  • Helen Grasso, 100 years old. Born Oct. 24, 1913 in Wilkes-Barre, PA. At age 88 when she finally retired, Grasso was featured on a television program as an example of positive aging, someone who continues to contribute to society. Her philosophy on life is “Every day is a good day.”
  • Dorothy Chappel, 102 years old. Born in 1911 in Rochester, NY. Chappel’s advice to others is to “be happy and nice to everyone.”
  • Hannah Niedermeier, 105 years old. Born in 1908, Niedermeier moved to Rochester when she was 18 years old. For 23 years she made educational films at Kodak. She says her eyes and ears aren’t what they used to be but, she says, she still “has the taste for a steak and a beer.”
  • Jesusa Rodriguez, 104 years old. Born July 3, 1909 in Puerto Rico. Rodriguez was the oldest of 12 children, and still enjoys her yearly trip back to her home town in Puerto Rico.
  • Harriet Felerski, 104 years old. Born Sep. 28, 1909 in Rochester, NY.

Four other centenarians—Martha “Pat” Haley, Ann Prizzi, Margaret Camiola and Maria DiFrancesco—were also honored at the event. The centenarians received a commemorative certificate from Betty Mullin-DiProsa, St. Ann’s president and CEO, and enjoyed a reception afterwards with punch, cookies and time with family.

- Bryn Luther, community relations representative, St. Ann's Community

Asbury Inverness Village, Tulsa, OK
Bill Beard has quietly enriched more lives in Inverness Village's Heather Hall than he'll ever know. He became involved with the Health Center through the needs of his wife, Jane, who lived with Alzheimer's disease.

Eventually, Jane made the move to memory support in Heather Hall. From that day forward, Beard has been devoted to positively impacting the lives of all the residents, families, and staff there. He’s spent almost every waking moment with Jane in her new home. However, it wasn't long before Bill's giving spirit led him to seek out opportunities to help everyone. From helping to set tables and serve meals, to starting a daily devotional and hymnal group, to bringing in a massage therapist for residents of the memory support neighborhood, Bill's contributions were endless.

He actively served in both the Men's Caregiver Support Group and the Health Center Family Council, where he proved to be both a great resident advocate and a resource for other spouses experiencing similar situations. He even advocated for a personal finance course to be offered to our associates.

When Jane passed away in 2011, it was hard on the entire Heather Hall family. In addition to mourning Jane, associates assumed that Bill's contributions to the residents would naturally start to diminish as Jane was no longer there. Now, we wonder how we doubted his devotion. Time has only strengthened Beard’s connections to residents, and wonderful contributions continue today. Bill Beard is the embodiment of servant spirit. Inverness Village is truly blessed that this is where he calls home.

- Cathy Canning, communications manager, Asbury Communities, Inc.

Daily Living Centers, Bethany, OK
It is impressive enough that John “Buddy” Leake, Jr., set football records as a place kicker and receiver at the University of Oklahoma. More impressive is that he also set records in baseball. A Collier’s All-American in 1952, Leake held the football career scoring record at Oklahoma for 19 years. In its game with Texas in 1952, Oklahoma won 49-20. In that game Leake set three game records: most points, longest touchdown pass reception, and most points after touchdowns in one game. Leake also made his mark on the baseball diamond when he set the record of hitting three home runs in consecutive times at bat. A third-round choice of the Green Bay Packers in 1955, Leake elected instead to play for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the Canadian Football League for three seasons. He also played AAA baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1955.

When his impressive athletic career finally ended, Leake went on to success as a life insurance underwriter. His heart still in athletics, Leake became a founding member of the Oklahoma chapter of the National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame, which gave him its “Contribution to Amateur Football” Award in 1993. In 1996, Leake was included as a recipient of the Sooner Illustrated “Best of the Best Award,” being selected as the best player in University of Oklahoma history to wear jersey number 22, a proud honor for a great athlete.

- Pam Timmons, Vice President of Development, Daily Living Centers

Friendship Village of Bloomington, Bloomington, MN
Drop by Virginia Johnson’s apartment and you may find her on Facebook posting messages, checking out pictures or chatting with friends and family. It might sound typical for a teen or 20-something, but Johnson is 92 and says she has to log in every day just to stay up to date on happenings in the world around her.

Although Johnson’s love of Facebook may seem unusual for someone her age, it actually places her within the growing population of older adults joining the social media craze. According to the latest report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, for the first time ever more than half (53%) of U.S. adults are online. And among older adults, one in three is beginning to use social media sites, making it one of the fastest-growing user demographics.

For this grandmother who lives at Friendship Village of Bloomington, what’s most important is staying connected with family, friends and the world around her, including friends in Norway and New Zealand.

- Pauline Drake, director of marketing, Friendship Village of Bloomington

Kingston Nursing Center, Conway, SC
You never know who you might encounter and be blessed to know. Even we caregivers may miss the gems of history contained in our elders’ lives. Dwight Gentry’s story is a prime example. Although Gentry built strong relationships with most of our staff, many of us just recently learned about some of his life experiences.

A proud American, Gentry selflessly served his country during World War II in France. As a Lieutenant and Infantry Company Commander in Company I of the 115th Infantry Regiment of the 29th Infantry Division in combat, Gentry led his unit from Normandy, France into Holland, then finally into Germany. A highly decorated infantryman, Gentry received the Silver Star, the Bronze Star with three Oak Leaf Clusters, and the Purple Heart with three Oak Leaf Clusters, among several other military decorations.

Back to 2013: At 93, Gentry received a high honor. He was appointed a “Chevalier” [Knight] of the French Legion d’honneur. “Chevalier” is one of five levels of this highest recognition bestowed by the French. Created in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte to award extraordinary merit or service provided to France, the Legion of Honor has since been expanded to include non-French citizens who fought in WWII for France’s freedom.

On Feb. 26th we hosted a small reception to celebrate Mr. Gentry receiving this remarkable honor. A humble man, Gentry (who has since passed away) was always modest about his military achievements and his successes in life. It is out of respect that we stopped, came together, and honored a truly brave man.

Throughout our busy days we need to slow down and learn more details about our elders’ lives. We should not just assume we know about the marvelous journeys that brought them into our lives. You never know: You just might be caring for a hero!

- Laura Fowler, administrator, Kingston Nursing Center

Penacook Place, Haverhill, MA
When she began going to the weekly bingo games at Sacred Heart Church in Bradford many years ago, Irene Griggs developed a passion for the game. And when she began to slowly lose her vision in the 1970s, she had a decision to make. She could either passively give in to the disability and forego her beloved bingo, or make up her mind to keep playing. Now 95, totally blind and a resident at Penacook Place, Griggs is still playing.

This bingo fan has always been something of a maverick. In 1932, long before the phrase, “women's liberation” was bandied about, Griggs started her own hairdressing business—when she was 18. She says that she loved taking care of people’s hair. Her shop was located inside Mitchell’s Department Store in Haverhill. When the store closed in 1979, Griggs moved her shop to another location, brought her loyal customers with her, and continued doing the job she loved well into her 70s.

Charles and Irene Griggs raised three children: Chucky, Robert, and Gail. Since all three still live in the area, she is able to keep in touch with them regularly. “I'm very proud of my kids,” Griggs says.

In addition to caring for their family, she and Charles enjoyed doing many things together, including going to summer theater in places such as Ogunquit, ME and Beverly, MA, and participating in the Elks lodge. They also were big dancers and enjoyed cutting the rug at storied ballrooms such as Rockingham, Hampton Beach, and Shawsheen.

But bingo was the one pursuit that Griggs most enjoyed. Declared legally blind in 1970, retinitis pigmentosa began to take a major toll on her peripheral vision in the 1980s. By 1986, Griggs had to stop working. But she wasn’t about to give up bingo.

So, how does a blind person play bingo? “Where there's a will, there's a way,” says Griggs. The strong-willed woman purchased three bingo cards and had Charles drill her until she memorized every grid, row, column and number in every position. Now, Irene totes the same slightly frayed three cards to bingo at Penacook. When a number is called, she mentally notes its position on her cards and shouts, “Bingo!” when she completes a row or column.

When it became difficult for her husband to remain at home, Griggs says that she was fortunate to have Charles come to Penacook Place. “I’d heard such wonderful things (about the community),” she says. Her husband died two years ago. Now a Penacook resident herself, Griggs says she’s grateful for the care and support that she receives. And, of course, for the chance to play bingo.

- Julian Rich, president/CEO, Penacook Place

Wesley Enhanced Living Doylestown, Doylestown, PA
Barbara Carlson, co-founder of Discovery Service Projects and resident of Wesley Enhanced Living Doylestown, is enjoying some much-deserved rest after recently returning from trips to Honduras and Merida, Mexico, where she and her team of volunteers carried out their mission to improve the health, education, safety and spiritual welfare of the local people in the region.

In Honduras, the Discovery Service Projects team spent almost three weeks at the Residential Home for Children in San Buenaventura, building a retaining wall in preparation for drilling a well, refurbishing a greenhouse, and teaching the teenage girls how to sew. This was in addition to the painting, sanding, staining, and maintenance work they also performed to help beautify the place. In Merida, Mexico, Carlson and her team of volunteers spent almost five weeks remodeling the men’s dormitory at the Presbyterian Theological Seminary to prepare for married students. The project involved plastering, plumbing, electrical work, tile laying, painting and landscaping.

The Discovery Service Project team also makes a difference in the lives of those in need in the United States. In 2012, its mission team went to Schoharie, NY, 30 miles west of Albany, where they helped local homeowners rebuild following severe flooding from Hurricane Irene. The next domestic project will take place in Swan Quarter, NC, where the volunteers will be repairing and rebuilding homes and buildings damaged by Hurricane Irene.

Discovery Service Projects developed from the vision of Barbara Carlson and her late husband, the Rev. Rowland Carlson, and their willingness to follow God’s leadership. Volunteers from many faiths work alongside local citizens in developing countries. These workers have built churches, clinics, community buildings, schools and private homes. Where their volunteers have worked, life has been enriched for individuals, families, and communities.

Carlson invites you to participate in future mission opportunities by praying for the project’s success, contributing to the cost of materials, joining the volunteers, or making a donation to the cause. Visit the Discovery Service Projects website for more details.

- Karen Doler, public relations manager, Wesley Enhanced Living

Abbey Delray, Delray Beach, FL
Dadma Edmond grew up one of six children raised by a single mother. At age 16, he became a father and, soon after, a single parent with custody of his daughter. That didn’t keep him from getting straight A’s throughout high school and earning a college degree. He’s now a CNA at Abbey Delray where residents and colleagues say he displays wisdom well beyond his years.

He’s become a vocal leader and motivator at Abbey Delray, and is regularly invited to speak at schools, churches and other community functions.

“I want to help people grow and give them the power to overcome fears and achieve the things they want to in life,” Edmond says. “A lot of my passion comes from my past.”

Many may find it hard to believe the 21-year-old has already authored a book on leadership, fearlessness and motivation, and he’s now working on a second book. Edmond is a John C. Maxwell-certified coach, speaker, trainer, and facilitator and runs his own company.

We noticed early on that Dadma is a special person with a unique gift. He has incredible energy, big ideas and aspirations, and he provides a lift for residents and for my colleagues that makes Abbey Delray a better place for everyone.

- Shawn Perrigo, executive director, Abbey Delray.

Parker Jewish Institute, New Hyde Park, NY
Responding to a reporter’s question about why he puts so much time into his charitable efforts on behalf of Parker Jewish Institute for Health Care and Rehabilitation, Jerry Landsberg replied: “I get back more than I could ever give.” With those words, Landsberg defined the paradigm of philanthropic leadership, his own involvement with the Institute and the essence of charitable giving.

A dedicated volunteer and friend of many charitable causes and community activities, Landsberg joined Parker’s Board of Trustees in 1979. Since then, he has been a driving force in progressive resident and patient care. He is a hands-on participant in a myriad of activities at the Institute, including the holiday events so crucial to the family-like “home away from home” environment that he has helped foster. Jerry regularly recruits members of the community to assist residents during services and festivities at Chanukah, Christmas, Passover and Easter. He even celebrates his birthdays with Parker residents at now much-anticipated “ice cream bashes.” (See this video of a recent “bash.”)

When the idea of developing a program for end-of-life care was first explored, he made a gift to enable the Institute to begin its remarkably valuable community hospice program that serves terminally ill patients and their families, at the patient’s home or in nursing facilities. Landsberg was also a leader in planning and developing Parker’s medical transportation division, Lakeville Ambulette Transportation, and on-site dialysis facility, the Queens-Long Island Renal Institute. His goal is always a simple one: Increase the quality of life of older adults. According to Landsberg, “helping others and helping to build a better community is a privilege.”

- Ron Shafran, associate VP, public affairs and government relations, Parker Jewish Institute

Westminster Gardens, Tallahassee, FL
Gladys Davis of Westminster Gardens, Tallahassee, is an outstanding asset to the community since July 2000. She takes active leadership roles in a variety of volunteer programs.

Davis was active in coordinating our dining room for evening meals and special occasions as well as organizing our morning coffee hour. She served wonderful breakfast items along with hot coffee. Residents met and chatted daily while Davis was busy serving. She recently resigned from her volunteer position but remains active and volunteers when and where services are needed. She was also in charge of overseeing the Elder Care lunch inventory, ordering supplies and keeping records on volunteer hours worked.

Davis won the Westminster Gardens Volunteer of the Year Award in 2007. Her dedication was recognized and she was treated to a weekend trip to Orlando to honor herself and other Westminster Services volunteers.

In addition to the above, 2008, Ms. Davis won a Silver Star award from the City of Tallahassee Senior Service Center, for outstanding achievements. She has many other accomplishments.

Ms. Davis is a Tallahassee native but moved to Pennsylvania in her 20s. She later moved to Detroit, Michigan with her husband to be closer to family. She remained there for 54 years until she decided to return to Florida.

The positive impact Gladys has on our community is reflected by the many waves and greetings she receives when walking down the hall in the lobby. We are proud and grateful to have her as part of our Westminster Family/Community.

- Gina Mora, administrator, Westminster Gardens