Adding life to years — and years to life
School of Public Health, Wellness Foundation join forces to train, salute senior leaders

By Diane Ainsworth, Public Affairs

Chizu Iiyama
Maria Rifo
Matilde Rothschild

25 September 2002 | Ninety-five-year-old Maria Rifo, who learned how to mobilize downtrodden people from her mentor, farm-labor organizer César Chávez, “finds beauty in involvement.” Rather than rest on her laurels after a long and difficult life as a farmworker in the Central Valley, she co-founded the national nonprofit organization “Alternatives to Violence, USA,” which helps people who have been in trouble with the law learn to respect and care for themselves and others. Then she helped open a Spanish-speaking branch in Santa Rosa, Calif., where she lives today.

Rifo, an immigrant from Santiago, Chile, was one of 35 California Senior Leaders honored Sept. 13 and 14 by the School of Public Health for their outstanding contributions to community-building and healthy aging in the state. Funded by The California Wellness Foundation, the awards ceremony was designed to showcase the often invisible role of California’s rapidly growing senior population and to provide selected seniors with two days of recognition and training.

“Seniors have been called our only expanding natural resource, yet society continues to cast them as burdens rather than the tremendous assets they are,” says Meredith Minkler, a Berkeley professor of health education and gerontologist. “In my own experience in community organizing — with seniors in Tenderloin hotels or Oakland grandparents who are actively involved in the community as they raise their grandchildren — seniors often are the engines driving community change…yet they’re often nearly invisible in the mass media.”

Minkler, the founding director of the UC Center on Aging, is the principal investigator for a new two-year School of Public Health project, California Senior Leaders and Healthy Aging, which will follow the 35 senior awardees through the next two years. To keep in touch with each of them, Minkler will work closely with Lisa Romero, a bilingual, bicultural doctoral student in public health; consultant Diane Driver, academic coordinator of the Center on Aging; and six graduate students who are studying community building at the School of Public Health.

In addition to the training provided at the awards event in areas such as media advocacy, fundraising, influencing policy, and healthy aging, the awardees will receive ongoing encouragement and technical assistance for their community service work Some of them, like Rifo, are involved in programs for violence prevention; others are running programs to educate youth against racism, feed the homeless, foster healthy aging, and promote community- building. All are between the ages of 55 and 102 years old, with most of them between 70 and 85.

“The inter-generational component of the project is one of its biggest assets,” says Romero, who directs the Senior Leaders project. “Student participants will learn at least as much as the seniors, and they’ll be learning from the masters.”

Chizu Iiyama, 81, is one of those masters. In 1942, when she was a senior at Cal, she was interned in a camp at Santa Anita Raceway in Southern California, along with 120,000 other Japanese Americans, after Pearl Harbor was attacked. “I got my degree in a horse stall in Santa Anita,” says the demure teacher, who still talks to elementary-school children and college students about the impact of racism. “We felt so isolated and abandoned, but that connection to the university really gave me hope for the future. I went on to earn a master’s degree in human development later.”

Iiyama, a self-described activist, spends much of her time with educational-outreach projects, speaking to groups about her experiences and the need to combat prejudice and racism, particularly in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001. She also conducts oral histories of older, Nisei-generation Japanese Americans for the Civil Liberties Fund and works with the Japanese American Historical Society on exhibits about the history of Japanese American women.

Just as remarkable is the work of Matile Rothschild, 69, who co-founded the nation’s first open support group for lesbians. Since moving to California in 1979, she has been interested in founding a residential and community center for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender seniors.

Today she is busy with a grassroots effort to raise money and support for the Rainbow Adult Community Housing Project. The proposed center, which is expected to be built near the new Gay and Lesbian Community Center at Market and Laguna Streets, will serve San Francisco’s elderly LGBT community, providing those in all income brackets with apartment rentals; a community center, theater, and café; and innovative adult day health care.

Rothschild calls the center unique because it will serve such a broad and diverse population of people 60 years old or older. The time is right, she adds — offering as proof a new $250,000 grant from the state of California to support a small staff — but it wasn’t always so. “We tried to do this in the early ’80s, but that was at the beginning of the AIDS crisis, and all of the public’s energy went into that. So we stopped for a few years, until people in the community started expressing interest in it again.”

Rothschild was surprised but delighted to learn of her Senior Leaders award. The School of Public Health solicited written nominations from local health departments, foundations, colleges, community-based organizations, and local and state governments. Eligibility was restricted to those at least 55 years old who had demonstrated a commitment to healthy aging and giving back to their communities.

“Healthy aging was defined broadly in our funding proposal to The Wellness Foundation so that a wide diversity of projects that add life to years and years to life could be considered,” Minkler says. “Awardees are all working in unpaid capacities, so our graduate students will now be able to provide them with some guidance and technical assistance. Because this is a service-learning project, we’ve also enlisted the support of other professors, such as public health professor Joan Bloom, who teaches program planning in the school’s Health Policy Management program, and some of her students, who may be linked with honorees who want help writing grant proposals.”

Aside from their new partnerships with the graduate students — which includes monthly telephone calls to discuss any problems the volunteers might be experiencing in their work, as well as modest financial and technical assistance — the honorees were clearly delighted to receive recognition from the School of Public Health.

“What a delight it was for me to come home and open that letter of congratulation,” Rothschild says with a smile.

But Gwen Jackson, founding director of an Oakland program to foster multicultural understanding and empowerment among disenfranchised youth, was grateful just for the opportunity to get away for a few days: “This [conference] helped me network with other senior community builders, access resources…and take a much needed break!”



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