Author: Luke Dumas, Associate Director of Development, Serving Seniors
Every person has a voice in a democratic society. Unfortunately, older adults are often left out of the conversation because they are afraid that their opinions don't matter. The Senior Leadership Development Institute (SLDI) empowers low-income seniors to reclaim their voices as vital members of society and engaged community leaders by providing advocacy workshops, leadership training, and volunteer opportunities to enhance seniors' leadership skills and knowledge of senior-related issues. Activities take place throughout the year at Serving Seniors' Gary & Mary West Senior Wellness Center in downtown San Diego.
Since its inception in March 2017, the SLDI has directly engaged over 1,000 seniors in leadership activities, including a successful #SaveLunch Campaign in which our seniors created and delivered nearly 400 plates with handwritten messages to Congressman Scott Peters and Congresswoman Susan Davis, encouraging them to ask other Members of Congress to continue funding and support for senior meal programs. Last year, our seniors led nearly a dozen community presentations across San Diego, and spoke in front of the City Council about the importance of walkable sidewalks for seniors.
This program is helping low-income seniors find their passion, build their confidence, and raise their voice to make a tangible difference in the lives of older adults nationwide. Furthermore, it improves health for low-income seniors by reducing isolation, improving mental health, building confidence and happiness, and promoting physical activity.
This program is operated in partnership with The San Diego Foundation’s Age-friendly Communities Program and Del Mar Healthcare Fund, which made the SLDI possible with a $65,000 grant.
Mario Richardson is one of the most dedicated members of the SLDI and a driving force behind the group’s recent efforts to improve transportation conditions of local seniors and those with disabilities. Richardson, who is African American, originally came to Serving Seniors as a client of our Transitional Housing Program for Homeless Seniors. He had been living on his son’s couch for some time, and through the program he was able to move into a temporary unit at the Sara Frances Hotel, save his money, and eventually move into permanent affordable housing. Since then, he has been a committed volunteer at the Gary & Mary West Senior Wellness Center, and the leader of our singing and walking group.
More recently, Richardson has taken a lead role in the SLDI. In January 2018, he was part of a group of four seniors who presented in front of SANDAG on ways to improve public transportation for seniors, disabled, and low-income individuals. This included MTS ridership procedures such as ensuring that buses stop completely parallel to the curb and utilizing the back exit when appropriate.
“I am following Paul (Downey's) lead," explained Richarson. "I hear him speak often and then I’m inspired to promote Serving Seniors in the community because of the many, many good programs and resources I see there. As a result, I am pleased to receive lots of positive feedback from many people. Regarding Serving Seniors, my belief is: ‘I ask not what Serving Seniors can do for me, but what I can do for Serving Seniors.’”
As a result of this presentation, a representative from SANDAG visited our Wellness Center for a tour of our facility—which Richarson led— and held an interactive session in which our seniors were able to provide direct feedback about the public transportation system and how it could be improved to suit their needs. SANDAG will use the feedback and insight gleaned from this event to inform their funding decisions and other improvements related to local public transportation.
Not only did Richarson step up to make his own voice heard, but his efforts made it possible for many others to have a say in their local government about an issue that affects many low-income seniors. We are very proud of what Richardson has achieved, and are confident his efforts will yield measurable results for San Diego seniors.