LeadingAge Magazine · November-December 2018 • Volume 08 • Number 06

Appreciating the People We Serve

November 16, 2018 | by The Members of LeadingAge

LeadingAge members share stories of the remarkable people they serve and employ.

José Suárez

Parkvue Community, Sandusky, OH

José Suárez makes it a point to introduce himself to new residents of United Church Homes’ Parkvue Community. When he did so on a recent spring day, he did not expect to meet a relative of the man he credits with saving his life.

Parkvue photo
José Suárez, left, with E. Anne Eddowes. Suárez
credits Eddowes uncle, James Baker, with saving
his life when he was a teenager.

New Parkvue resident Dr. E. Anne Eddowes was familiar with United Church Homes because she grew up with Ruth Frost Parker, a former board member and the largest single benefactor in UCH history. Eddowes decided to move to UCH’s Parkvue campus in early 2018. Shortly after her move, she met Suárez in a serendipitous moment.

Suárez was only 14 years old when he left his home country of Cuba, alone, without his parents, to come to the United States amid a period of turmoil in the island country. He fondly recalls his childhood as being “spoiled.”

“I really had a charmed childhood,” Suárez says. “There was a lot of political disturbance and fighting, but in terms of my personal life, it was very, very satisfying.”

With a propensity for languages, Suárez quickly became a target of the communist authorities. He feared he would be sent to the Soviet Union or face death if he stayed in Cuba.

Suárez was one of more than 14,000 Cuban children airlifted from Havana to the U.S. between 1960 and 1962 as part of Operation Pedro Pan, made possible because of a deal Fr. Bryan Walsh of the Miami Diocese made with the U.S. State Department to allow him to sign visa waivers for children 16 and younger.

Suárez spent about 6 months in a refugee camp in Albuquerque, NM, before being reunited with his parents in Florida. He met James Baker, a philanthropist and humanist whom Suárez credits with saving his life. Baker, now deceased, was the uncle of Anne Eddowes. He was also a colleague of Suárez’ English teacher, a British woman named Penny Powers, who first rescued Jewish children from Nazi Europe in the 1940s and did the same for Cuban youth in the 1960s. She was later awarded the Order of the British Empire for her work with children.

Suárez and his wife, Margaret, are active members of Parkvue Place, where he uses technology regularly, building on his pre-retirement work in computer repair. One of his projects was a thank-you video for Parkvue Community donors titled Thanks to You.

Alissa Paolella, communications coordinator, United Church Homes, Inc.

AG Rhodes photo
Vickie Mathis

Vickie Mathis

A.G. Rhodes Health & Rehab, Atlanta, GA

In September 1971, at age 19, Vickie Mathis started what would become a span of nearly 47-years—and counting—at A.G. Rhodes. A CNA, Mathis is A.G. Rhodes’ longest-tenured employee. In June, she was honored with the dedication of an area in the nursing home as “Vickie Mathis Lane.”

“Vickie is one of the most compassionate and caring individuals I’ve ever met,” says Administrator Kristie Davis. “It’s incredible to see an employee with such dedication for so long, and we can’t thank her enough for all that she does to enhance the lives of the elders who stay with us.”

While Mathis has seen many changes throughout her tenure, one thing has remained constant; her love and admiration for the people who stay at A.G. Rhodes.

“When I come to work, I come with love,” says Mathis. “If the residents want something, I try my best to get it for them.”

Mathis says it’s important to get to know the residents, be patient with them and don’t rush through the job.

“Go read to them, water their flowers and keep them company,” says Mathis. “Pay special attention to what makes them feel at home. Give them a smile.”

Mathis also says that residents have unique histories and upbringings, and that it’s important to honor that part of their lives.

“You’d be surprised at their backgrounds,” says Mathis. “Some were doctors, some were school teachers—they all have a past.”

As for retirement plans, Mathis says she loves what she does and she’s just taking it day by day.

“This place has been my life,” says Mathis, “I’ve been blessed.”

Mary Olsen Newton, chief communications officer, A.G. Rhodes Health & Rehab

Lou Grandmaison and Sarah Bostian

Abernethy Laurels, Newton, NC

Abernethy photo
Sarah Bostian, left, and Lou Grandmaison loading the
collected items from their “Sprinkle Some Love” supply
drive for local foster children.

Both residents at Abernethy Laurels, Lou Grandmaison and Sarah Bostian have a strong desire to help others in their community. They are both active within LINC (Linked in New Creative) Ministries and give freely of their time by volunteering in numerous capacities. When the 2 ladies heard about a need in our county to help foster children, they immediately jumped into action.

“There are over 300 children in Catawba County currently in foster care. When children are placed into foster care, many times it’s unplanned, leaving the children without essential items,” says Grandmaison.

She decided to organize a supply drive at Abernethy Laurels. “Our community is filled with others that want to make a difference. I knew when staff and residents heard about this need, they would open their hearts and wallets,” says Grandmaison.

“Sprinkle Some Love,” the name of the supply drive, was an effort to collect school supplies, hygiene products and therapy and calming items. Within a week, the once empty barrel was overflowing with supplies. “I’m so proud of our collection efforts,” Grandmaison adds. “It warms my heart to know that we are making a difference in the lives of local children. We are sprinkling love right here in our own community.”

Shaylyn Ladd, director of community engagement, United Church Homes and Services

Al Hanson

St. Martin’s Manor (Christopher Homes), New Orleans, LA

Alfred Hanson III is affectionately known as “Big Al” to his family and many friends. He is a 4-year resident at St. Martin’s Manor, where he has become a permanent fixture. He loves the residents and staff and enjoys helping others, and giving as much of himself as possible.

Al Hanson
“Big Al” Hanson

Hanson is a 1968 graduate of Joseph S. Clark Senior High School, where he excelled in sports—football, basketball and baseball. He is the proud father of 2 sons and a daughter, and extremely proud of his 7 grandchildren and 7 great-grandchildren. He says his family is very important to him, because of his faith and belief, and that a family that prays together stays together.

Hanson is a member of St. David Catholic Church, where he grew up in the lower 9th and 7th wards. He has worked as a cook, a warehouse product manager and a truck driver, and he has managed a dry cleaning business. “These jobs allowed me to do what I enjoyed doing best, and that is meeting people from all walks of life,” Hanson says. “I believe communication is the greatest thing in the world.”

He adds, “I remember my upbringing by my parents—to always care and share as God has made things possible for me.” At St. Martin’s Manor, he continues to be one of God’s chosen angels in serving and meeting the needs of others.

Hanson has volunteered to take on many roles in order that his peers would have that extra support. He helps distribute commodities to the residents monthly. He assists in serving the lunches provided to the seniors by Giving Hope, a local charity. He is a voice for the residents by expressing the concerns of others and presenting ideas from the seniors to staff. He also supports staff directives to the residents and encourages his peers to follow those expectations.

The residents and staff of St. Martin’s Manor would like to salute Big Al Hanson for his caring heart and loving spirit towards mankind. He is the greatest, as stated by several residents, and we are happy to have him on our team.

Debra Stepter, contract administrator, Christopher Homes, Inc.

Charley and Sheila Pritchett

Azalea Trace Retirement Community, Pensacola, FL

If you have any doubts about the benefits of lifelong learning, just consider the Pritchetts. Charley is 92, Sheila is 82, and they’ve been college students for more than a decade.

They are now about to wrap up their 40th class at the University of West Florida, next door to Azalea Trace. They take advantage of Florida’s free college education program for people age 60 and over. They don’t receive course credits, but for just $10 to pay for the student ID, they can audit any courses that have openings to accommodate them.

See this profile of them in the local newspaper, and hear the Pritchetts tell their own story in this podcast:

Lisa Sileo, communications manager, Acts Retirement-Life Communities

Joy Atchison

Mount View Care Center (North Central Health Care), Wausau, WI

Most people would shy away from public speaking and sharing their personal story with others, especially strangers, but not Joy Atchison, a resident of Mount View Care Center.

Mount View photo
Joy Atchison

Two years ago I approached Atchison with an idea about staff education: Why not have the residents be the teachers for our in-services? Atchison, who has lived at Mount View Care Center since 2014, has a ventilator she uses to help with her breathing. In staff development, I was finding that many of the CNAs were apprehensive about working on our ventilator unit, which was leading to challenges in our staffing. The apprehension was due to lack of training and comfort with the ventilators.

I talked with Atchison about our dilemma and inquired if she would help me with some staff training. She jumped on the opportunity and for 2 years now, has trained all 200-plus CNAs to feel more competent working with those who rely on mechanical ventilation. In year one, she talked everyone through the procedure of helping someone with a ventilator get dressed, and even used herself as the model. This year, Atchison and another resident come to special training sessions and tell everyone their personal stories of how they got on the ventilator, allowing everyone to ask questions.

Atchison has a knack for speaking and teaching, and we always joke about what I am going to have her do next—and that someday she will have my job!

Atchison brings humor and heart into everything she does. She is from De Pere WI, near Green Bay, but had to move 100 miles to Wausau because Mount View is only one of 5 ventilator nursing homes where she can live. She loves cats, and helps feed the ones we have here every day. She is very involved in resident council and other activities, and recently went with a group of residents on a tour of Lambeau Field and the Packers Hall of Fame.

Before retiring, Atchison was a tractor-trailer driver and, with her husband, drove big rigs for many years. Her goal is to buy a motorcycle or Volkswagen Beetle, and everybody here always comments on her bright red hair.

Cagney Martin, nursing home staff development, North Central Health Care

Mel Lazerick

Edgewater at Boca Pointe (Acts Retirement-Life Communities), Boca Raton, FL

For 100-year-old Mel Lazerick, the secret to a fulfilling, long life is to stay busy. Mel volunteers 3 days a week, serving others at Boca Helping Hands, a local food bank and resource center. He has handed out groceries to those in need for the past 2 decades.

“When I started 20 years ago, I gave out maybe 30 bags of groceries. Today, it’s 150 to 200 we feed,” says Mel. “I enjoy volunteering. It gives me a place to go and something worthwhile to do for other people.”

Mel is the oldest active volunteer at the food bank. “I’m 4 months into my second 100,” he jokes.

“Some people at that age exist or survive. He’s living,” Greg Hazle, executive director of Boca Helping Hands told the Sun Sentinel. “He’s doing what he likes to do and he’s doing it for other people, which I think are good rules for living a full life.”

Watch how Mel Lazerick inspires others in the video below:

Lisa Sileo, communications manager, Acts Retirement-Life Communities

Janet Srokowski

Seabury, Bloomfield, CT

Janet Srokowski, R.N., a staff nurse for Seabury Visiting Nurses, was one of 72 nurses in Connecticut to be nominated and selected to win a Nightingale Award for Excellence in Nursing in its 16th year.

Seabury photo
Janet Srokowski, R.N., left, with Diane Surrett, R.N.

“Our clients call in for Janet all the time because they love her,” says Diane Surrett, R.N., supervisor of clinical services for Seabury Visiting Nurses. “Janet is not only very hands-on, but she is very good with clinical documentation and extremely dependable. She is very respected within the nursing profession.”

Srokowski received her B.S.N. from Mount Saint Mary College in 1980. For 35 years, she held various roles in nurse management and acute care at Hartford Hospital until 2015, when she joined Seabury as a visiting nurse. Her main focus as a home care nurse is to help patients continue to strive, or regain their independence. But, according to Surrett, when the time comes for the very difficult and emotional conversations about end-of-life care with families, Srokowski has her own special and respectful way about her that puts families at ease.

Ironically, when Surrett, her nominator, began her nursing career at Hartford Hospital in the 1980s, Srokowski was her mentor. At the time, she had only been a nurse for 1 year, which really impressed Surrett due to her extensive knowledge and confidence in such a short period of time. Over the years, however, they lost contact as Surrett transitioned from a hospital setting to home care, where she is today. It was at Seabury where their careers again overlapped.

The Nightingale Awards are named for legendary English nurse Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing. Nightingale first made her mark during the Crimean War, where the “Lady with the Lamp” made evening rounds to wounded soldiers. Since 1965, International Nurses Day has been celebrated on her birthday, May 12.

In addition to providing excellent care to her patients, Srokowski has time and time again helped co-workers after hours and on weekends with clinical guidance when she is not on the schedule. Surrett feels that as her former mentor, Srokowski is a leader in the field and continuously goes well beyond the call at Seabury.

Srokowski lives in Windsor, CT, with her husband. They have 2 sons.

Marc Zirolli, marketing counselor, Seabury

Ladies Who Lead—and Give Back

Lenbrook, Atlanta, GA

Every month, Lenbrook hosts an educational session, Mentor Me Mondays, that is open to its more than 200 associates. At these events, Lenbrook residents are invited to share their expertise and personal life lessons.

Lenbrook photo
The “Ladies Who Lead” (left to right): Mary Ann Oakley, Grace Phillips, Missy Sanchez, Nancy Toon and Lenbrook Training and Development Specialist Tammy Washington. Not pictured: Judy Franz.


Recently, Training and Development Specialist Tammy Washington organized a panel discussion featuring 5 highly accomplished resident “Ladies Who Lead” to inspire and motivate:

Dr. Judy Franz: A world-renowned physicist, Dr. Franz received her Ph.D. from the University of Illinois, where she was the only female student in a class of 300. She began her career with IBM’s research lab in Zurich, Switzerland, and then joined the faculty at Indiana University for 18 years. She also taught at West Virginia University, the University of Alabama in Huntsville, Cornell University and the Technical University of Munich in Germany. In 1994, Franz became the executive director of the Professional Society of Physicists, which publishes major physics research journals. She helped organize the first International Conference on Women in Physics in Paris in 2002, which had 300 attendees from 65 countries. One of her major career goals has been to improve physics education, and she is a past president of the American Association of Physics Teachers.

Grace Greer Phillips: After a 22-year career of raising children, Grace Phillips became a full-time volunteer for Joe Frank Harris’s campaign for governor of Georgia. When he was elected, she became his executive assistant for 8 years. She then became division director of licensure and quality assurance for the State Board of Worker’s Compensation until she retired in 1997. She has been a community volunteer and board member for the Scottish Rite Children’s Hospital, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation and Families First. Agnes Scott College named her “Woman of the Year” in 2010 for her service to the community.

Missy Sanchez: With over 30 years of experience in college counseling at the high school level, Missy Sanchez brings clarity and insight into the college admissions process. She was the director of college counseling at Woodward Academy in Atlanta, GA, the largest independent school in the U.S. Missy was responsible for building and maintaining the college counseling department. She has held several leadership roles with the National Association of College Admissions Counselors, and has also served on the counselor advisory boards at U.S. News and World Report’s annual Best Colleges guide.

Mary Ann B. Oakley: A graduate of Duke University, Emory University and the Emory University School of Law, Mary Ann Oakley has been honored as one of the “Best Lawyers in Georgia.” During her time as an attorney she was a part of the State Board of Bar Examiners, the Georgia Supreme Court Commission on Racial & Ethnic Bias in the Court System, the Georgia Association for Women Lawyers and many more organizations. She also taught at Georgia State University, Emory University Law School and the Georgia Institute for Trial Advocacy. She has been featured in many publications, including The Atlanta Lawyer and Emory Law Journal.

Nancy Toon spent most of her career years as a stay-at-home mom, raising 3 daughters. After they left for college, she became a pilot and flight instructor at Peachtree DeKalb Airport. She has also held many volunteer positions, including with a hospital auxiliary and her church.

Lenbrook’s “Ladies Who Lead” offered a few nuggets of wisdom:

  • Every job builds and prepares you for the next job. So whatever you do, do it well.
  • Always think ahead: “What are the next 3 things I should be doing?”
  • When someone says something disrespectful, don’t get upset … educate.
  • At work always be dependable, and say “yes” to whatever is asked of you.
  • It’s never too late to start.

Rochelle Valsaint, manager, brand and communications, Lenbrook

Wheatlands photo
Joe Meng, repairing and preparing secondhand goods
for sale in The Thrift Shop.

Joe Meng

Wheatlands Health Care Center, Kingman, KS

Joe Meng has been a whirlwind of a blessing to Wheatlands Health Care Center for the past 14 years. He began his tenure as a board member in 2004 after his mother had been a resident of the home. Meng is a man with a tremendous spirit of generosity and what seems to be never-ending energy.

When a new administrator came to Wheatlands in 2005, Meng quietly asked what he could do to help. And so it began. He did everything: mowing, painting eaves on the building, stopping a large water leak in the skylight above the main nurse’s station and donating money for equipment. Over and over, Meng demonstrated his commitment and dedication to Wheatlands.

In 2011, after a conversation about how difficult it was to budget in needed equipment with the fiscal cuts to Medicaid, Meng started The Thrift Shop, a second-hand shop that sells everything from furniture to pots and pans. The public has been overwhelmingly supportive and donates items that Meng and his group of volunteers work on to clean, repair, organize and get ready to sell. The store is open for business on Fridays and Saturday mornings, and has a steady stream of customers. He has taken his dedication to Wheatlands to new heights, and he works The Thrift Shop like a full-time job. Tuesday is the main workday and he makes sure all his volunteers are fed lunch. He hosts a Christmas dinner for them each December, and always makes sure he tells them how much he appreciates them.

Under Meng’s leadership, the store has raised over $500,000 for Wheatlands. Of course, Meng gives all the credit for this success to his group of wonderful volunteers and to Wheatlands for taking such good care of its residents so people want to donate items to the store. But we know it would not be the place it is today without Joe Meng. He is one in a million and we are happy to call him our friend.

Sherry Rinke, administrator, Wheatlands Health Care Center

Rolling Green photo
Ken Guion

Ken Guion

Rolling Green Village, Greenville, SC

When Betty Burket encountered a frozen screen on her desktop computer last month, she picked up the phone and called tech support at her Rolling Green Village home. Within minutes, the “Geezer Squad” showed up at her door.

More and more seniors are using technology. A recent Pew Survey found 4 in 10 seniors now own a smartphone, and 67% of them surf the Internet.

The tech-savvy support system at Rolling Green Village is there to answer any questions residents may have. The Geezer Squad is run by resident Ken Guion. The business cards he hands out to residents daily refer to him as “The Geezer,” and it’s a name he flaunts proudly around the Greenville senior living community.

Before retiring, Guion was a computer programmer and software developer. He enjoys sharing his computer skills for free with his fellow neighbors who’ve adapted to technology. Since moving to the community 2 years ago, he’s made more than 150 house calls. Whether it’s helping residents turn on their computer for the first time or answering questions on what apps to use on their phone, Guion is there for assistance.

Ken also teaches a monthly computer course that tackles the issues many seniors face when dealing with technology. Class titles include “OMG, My Computer Is Just Like Me,” and “Who Says a Phone Can’t Be Smart?”

Chelsea Wilson, public relations senior account executive, GlynnDevins

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