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Noozhawk Talks: Passion for Helping Elderly Never Gets Old for Heidi Holly

Friendship Center's executive director credits grandmother with inspiring lifelong love for elders

By Leslie Dinaberg, Noozhawk Contributor | @lesliedinaberg |

It may take a village to raise a child, but it also takes a village to grow older with grace and dignity. That’s where Friendship Center comes in.

Heidi Holly, executive director of Santa Barbara's Friendship Center, says keeping families intact, so people can live at home as long as possible, is the vital mission of the nonprofit organization's adult day-care services.
Heidi Holly, executive director of Santa Barbara’s Friendship Center, says keeping families intact, so people can live at home as long as possible, is the vital mission of the nonprofit organization’s adult day-care services. (Valorie Smith / Noozhawk photo)

Offering a safe, secure and pleasant place for elderly and dependent adults to be during the day has been Friendship Center executive director Heidi Holly’s “honor and a pleasure” for the past 26 years.

“It’s been a great purpose doing the work that we do, carrying out our mission and working with wonderful compassionate staff and volunteers and board members,” she told Noozhawk.

“I’ve just been honored to be able to be doing this,” she said, frequently smiling with pleasure during our conversation as members stopped by her office to wave hello.

The fact that clientele — who are adults who require supervision during the day, have physical or mental limitations, and may be socially isolated or lonely — are called “members” reflects the idea that they are extended family.

“We really serve families and the aging dependent adults,” Holly said. “So in addition to the people who come on site we are also serving their families who go out in the world and do their jobs or take care of children at home.”

Keeping families intact, so people can live at home as long as possible, is of primary importance to Holly, whose own family consists of her husband, Richard, who works for Santa Barbara County, and her daughter, Marisa, a student at Humboldt State University.

On average, Friendship Center helps families to deter long-term care for their loved ones for about two and a half to three years.

“If we can continue to do that in a cost-effective manner, it’s key,” Holly said. “The cost for a residential-care facility costs maybe $6,000 or $7,000 a month. Do the math.”

When members arrive at Friendship Center, either with family members or caregivers, through Easy Lift Transportation or on one of the center’s vans, they are greeted warmly and given a nutritious and delicious continental breakfast. The rest of the day is filled with a variety of activities, including field trips to places like the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum or out to lunch on a picnic if they participate in the Adventuresome Aging Program, designed for individuals in early stages of dementia.

“The goal is to still be very independent and out in the community,” Holly explained.

There are also a variety of activities on-site, including lunch from Community Action Commission, classes with SBCC’s Omega Program and the Connections Program for Early Memory Loss, which involves memory games and mental exercises to keep the brain sharp.

“We want to create a menu of options,” Holly said.

Those options include an intergenerational program called GOLD (Growing Old), which Holly started when her daughter was in second grade and she brought a group of Friendship Center members to her class.

The annual Festival of Hearts is Friendship Center's main fundraiser. Executive director Heidi Holley shows off a heart created by local artist Steven Gilbar, which will be auctioned at the Feb. 12 fundraiser at Fess Parker's DoubleTree Resort.
The annual Festival of Hearts is Friendship Center’s main fundraiser. Executive director Heidi Holley shows off a heart created by local artist Steven Gilbar, which will be auctioned at the Feb. 12 fundraiser at Fess Parker’s DoubleTree Resort. (Valorie Smith / Noozhawk photo)

“It’s magic what happens to the children when we bring in some of our members to talk about growing old,” she said. “They’ll ask questions like ‘What did you want to be when you were my age?’ One woman has that wonderful English accent, which we all love, and one of the children asked, ‘Could you speak some English?’ Or ‘What do you do when you lose your hair?’

“They’re just so candid and it puts our members — some of whom have real memory cognitive problems — but it puts them into a learning position and boosts their self-esteem.”

Friendship Center also enjoys a close relationship with All Saints By-the-Sea Parish Preschool, whose students often visit the center to do art projects, sing songs and other fun-for-all-ages activities. All Saints By-the-Sea Episcopal Church, 83 Eucalyptus Lane in Montecito, has provided a home for the center since 1979.

“We are so very grateful that they have extended this opportunity to have our home here,” said Holly. “We couldn’t do it without them ... We are blessed because the church owns the building and we have an agreement with them to use this facility ... We used to literally run our program in a parking lot. We used to put up a portable fence on Monday and take it down on Friday so the church could use the parking lot.

“And then when they embarked on their centennial campaign, we got to establish our wish list of what this program would look like. They did a remodel and then they got this beautiful facility, which is really more conducive to our population that we serve.”

As part of the church’s centennial campaign, the Friendship Center underwent a complete renovation in 1998. The structure, which had surrounded a courtyard open to the street, was enlarged to include offices and rooms that safely enclosed the courtyard. The building was dedicated as the Hall Community Center, a tribute to the late Rev. George Hall, a longtime rector at the church.

Fees for Friendship Center services are based on what members can afford and only cover about 44 percent of what is needed to run the nonprofit organization.

“The rest comes from the philanthropic community,” explained Holly. This includes grants from the Archstone, Santa Barbara and Weingart foundations, and support from the city of Santa Barbara, the county and individual donors.

As with all nonprofit organizations, funding is key to the program.

“We never turn anyone away for lacks of funds,” Holly said. “We work with each family to determine what they can afford.”

When asked if her work is tiring, Holly shrugged.

Friendship Center members proudly display two hearts that will be auctioned at the 12th Annual Festival of Hearts fundraiser.
Friendship Center members proudly display two hearts that will be auctioned at the 12th Annual Festival of Hearts fundraiser. (Valorie Smith / Noozhawk photo)

“I couldn’t do it alone, that’s for sure,” she said. “I have a great team, a great staff. We have great board members who believe in the mission and, really, that’s what it is about is serving our mission and advancing our mission and supporting the community.

“But we always need funding. I like to plug that.”

Coming up at noon Feb. 12 is Friendship Center’s 12th Annual Festival of Hearts, an old-fashioned Valentine’s Day Party and luncheon at Fess Parker’s DoubleTree Resort. It’s a benefit for the Heart Program, which Holly explained is an acronym for Help Elders At Risk Today. Local artists and community members create heart-shaped “works of heart” that are then auctioned off to raise money for the center.

“The hearts are really symbolic of what Friendship Center does, which is being heartfelt for our purpose and carrying out our mission for our members and their family,” said Holly. “We encourage everybody to bring their valentine to this event and do their valentine shopping because it’s right before Valentine’s Day.”

When she’s not at work, Holly says her favorite place to be is at home with her husband, cooking.

“I like to cook, too, but he takes over so I just kind of let him go and I appreciate that,” she said.

When her daughter was growing up, the family always made a habit of sitting down to dinner together, and although the nest is now empty with Marisa away at college, that ritual remains.

“We always sit down to dinner,” she said. “I light a candle; it’s like regrouping. I just think that’s so important,” she said.

Holly credits her relationship with her grandmother with stirring her passion for her work with the elderly.

“I’ve always had a special place for my grandmother that inspired me to look at the wisdom of our aging population and to be respectful,” she said. “Because if we’re all fortunate enough to be able to age in our community, we eventually will be there, too.”

Click here for more information about Friendship Center, or call 805.969.0859. Click here to purchase tickets fo the Feb. 12 Festival of Hearts fundraiser. Become a fan on Facebook.

Noozhawk contributor Leslie Dinaberg can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow her on Twitter: @LeslieDinaberg.




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