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A decade after opening, St. Helena’s Rianda House senior activity center is hopping

First of two parts

As St. Helena’s Rianda House Senior Activity Center celebrates more than a decade since it first opened in May 2008, there’s a lot going on with weekly programs and activities, volunteers, fundraising, and giving assistance and information.

On Friday, Jan. 18, the Star decided to take a deep dive into Rianda House, with help from Executive Director Julie Spencer. From 10:30 a.m. to 12:50 p.m., with a half-hour for lunch, 14 people were interviewed in five groups, from board members, office staff, volunteers, greeters and participants.

Eighty minutes of questions and answers were recorded and transcribed. Each were asked three questions:

  • Why is Rianda House important?
  • Why do you work so hard at what you do?
  • What are you doing in 2019 to ensure the success of Rianda House?

From these interviews, a common thread emerged: Rianda House is important because it is a hub for seniors and it helps them make connections with each other and with the larger community. Those seniors are mostly from St. Helena and others are from Calistoga, Angwin, Pope Valley, Yountville and Napa.

According to statistics compiled by Rianda House, in 2018, 980 older adults made 10,725 visits “to connect with their community.” Those people came for “classes, support groups, social gatherings, conversation circles, interactive presentations and to find resource assistance from our 22 local partner agencies,” according to the year-end review for 2018.

Staff members

Spencer has served as executive director for a decade, starting in October 2008, just five months after Rianda House opened. For years, she was the only staff member – Toni Abdalla, operations manager, was first a consultant, then was hired full time in April 2016; Elizabeth Cobb-Bruno was first part time and joined full time in January 2017. She is both program manager and volunteer manager.

“Rianda House is important as a hub for older adults in our community,” Spencer said. “It’s a great opportunity to bring professionals here so folks can connect with resources that they need, now or in the future. Rianda House is sort of a touchstone that reminds folks in our community of the value and importance of seniors.” It is also a place for older adults to continue to be engaged socially and stay connected in the world, she said.

Abdalla said that Rianda House “is important to me because of the people. I love whoever walks through that door. I’ve established some really, really close relationships.” And, she adds, Rianda House is important for a number of different reasons for seniors: “to be social, to come in for a meal, to come in for resources,” or just for a cup of coffee or talk to the greeter at the front door.

As the person in charge of programming, Cobb-Bruno said it’s very important “to appreciate and respect what people want because they want to be healthy, to be stimulated mentally, to have a social life. I’m committed to them to continue to give that to them for their independence.” She said she works hard at her job because “I love what I do and I love to give to the seniors.”

Spencer said she is motivated to work so hard because she wants to make Rianda House the best it can be. Why? “I see the smiles and hear the laughter and the tears and feel the hugs,” she said. “I see the new friendships that form here.” Additionally, she believes Rianda House “is way bigger than anybody could have ever dreamt when Jean Rianda thought we needed a place for seniors.”

In 2003, at age 95, Rianda decided to offer her home at 1475 Main St. for a gathering place for Upvalley seniors after her death. She had lived in the house for 36 years and according to her good friend Greta Ericson, the home’s roof leaked and the house “was in terrible shape … it looked like such a huge endeavor that it was almost like it may not happen.”

After Rianda’s death on July 1, 2003, it took a group of dedicated people to undertake the demolition and rehabilitation of the building, which opened as Rianda House on May 15, 2008.

After a decade’s worth of growth, the Rianda House board of directors is renewing its strategic plan, examining what is needed in terms of facilities, such as additional parking, updated appliances in the kitchen, and possibly remodeling the building to create different office space and additional program space.

Additionally, Cobb-Bruno meets once a month with Rianda’s collaborative partners, Collabria Care, Upvalley Village, St. Helena and Calistoga recreation departments, St. Helena Public Library, Napa Valley College and the St. Helena Historical Society, as well as others. All of these organizations come together and ask each other, “What can we do together?” rather than duplicating services, Spencer said. “This is too small a community to have multiple offerings of the same thing,” she added.

Cobb-Bruno said she is extending more programming in Calistoga and working hard to expand Rianda House’s collaborative efforts.

Board of directors

Priscilla Upton, who has served on Rianda’s board for the past seven years, calls Rianda House “a jewel in the community. It has grown and prospered and shown the need that is out there for having a place where seniors as well as younger people can come and be together, help each other, partake in various other programs.”

Carroll Cotten is both an old and new board member, having served for a five-year stint that began in 2009 and starting again last November. He also is a leader of a men’s discussion group – “Gents & A Cuppa Joe” – that meets at 8:15 a.m. Thursdays. “It’s usually 12 or 14 older guys gathering and we have no agenda, we just come and meet and almost always something of importance, at least to us, emerges in the conversation,” he said. Humor plays a part of the discussion and Cotten adds, “We have a good time together.”

Why do you work so hard at what you do? Cotten said he gets a lot of personal satisfaction from it. “One of my developed skills is to interact with people in a positive way, at least I hope that’s the case, so I get a chance to practice that here. It keeps my motor running.”

For Upton, who also chairs Rianda House’s financial development committee, working hard “keeps me out of trouble; keeps me going. I love being a part of it. I work hard at it. I see the results of what happens. Raising money and getting out into the community is very exciting to me.” She said she has learned a lot and the people on the committee are super.

“I work hard because I really love this place and I want to see it continue long after I’m gone. Rianda House will be someplace that will always connect with seniors and bring in all of these wonderful programs,” Upton said.

Cotten is one of those “super” people on the financial development committee. “Our committee has reached out to people who know Rianda and have a similar love of Rianda that we do and we encourage them to think about giving in a three-year sequence,” he said. With those pledges, Rianda’s leadership has sustainable funds, Cotten said, which “can assist us in reaching out and providing even more excellent programs.”

Upton said one of Rianda’s members, Mary Stuard, gave a matching grant of $100,000 over a three-year period. “We were all given a list of names and we needed to raise somewhere around $30,000 each year,” Upton said. Ten people started making calls in November and so far the match for 2018 has been met and the committee is close to meeting the matching goal for 2019.

“This is a wonderful gift to help us grow,” Upton said.

Cotten is one of the 10 callers and he said it’s been an easy sell to get people to donate. His pitches always stress the excellent programs at Rianda.

“We have this wonderful gift from Mrs. Stuard, we hope that you could see the vision of giving over a three-year sequence, and that would give us the sustainability to be able to do even more excellent programming at Rianda,” he tells people.

“I’ve had very positive responses,” he added.


Rianda House has some 75 volunteers, which includes 10 board members, 12 greeters, a vineyard group, a garden group, the “calendar girls,” and the kitchen help who support the Meals on Wheels program. Hot lunches are served on Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays. On each of those days, Grant Peniston delivers 10-15 meals to seniors in St. Helena and Lois Gouveia delivers the same number to Calistoga seniors.

“I think the volunteers are extraordinary,” Upton said. “We want to do things that celebrate them and one of the things we did was to photograph them and put the portraits up in the main room at Rianda House. We do things to celebrate the people who work so hard behind the scenes.”

Spencer added, “After being here for 10 years, without the board and hands-on volunteers that we’ve had, both in the beginning and now, we couldn’t do what we do now. We’ve grown into a professional broad-based facility because of the support of our board and our volunteers.”

Anne Marie Clifford has been a volunteer for more than 10 years, while Elizabeth Densberger just started volunteering as a greeter in mid-January.

A decade ago, Clifford heard about the building of Rianda House and said, “I just knew that I wanted to volunteer. I didn’t even know that they needed somebody. I had been in St. Helena just a couple of years, so I thought perhaps some of my skills would be helpful in whatever capacity.”

Densberger first brought her mom to Rianda House for the brain fitness program and said Rianda House is “a wonderful place, a wonderful resource.”

Why is the senior center so important? “I personally think that society today is so fast and so forgetful,” she said. “I think the younger generations are so forgetful of what the elderly give to us and have brought to us.”

“It is wonderful to be able to bring the programs and support to the elderly,” she said, adding, “I think you can never do enough. It’s not possible to make them feel still needed and still a vital part of the community.”

Clifford reflects back on the past decade: “I think no one could really predict how Rianda House could evolve when it opened its doors. When you read the statistics, over 1,000 people came here last year to connect with 10,000 activities, I think it’s indicative of the success of Rianda House over the years. The numbers reflect that and people come here.”

As a greeter, Densberger works once a week for a four-hour stretch, either 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. or 12:30 to 4:30 p.m. While learning her volunteer responsibilities, she has shadowed two women. She said she has seen their connections with others – she calls them “amazing” – and realizes they are involved in something “so much greater and bigger than what I think is my simple existence within the community.” She calls volunteering “invigorating. It’s amazing to come and I feel so great when I leave.”

Clifford said the key to success is “to show up every week.” Beyond that, though, Rianda House leaders are always open to ideas and suggestions. She said she looks forward to events and activities and is willing to do what is necessary to make sure the programs happen.

Her favorite programs include travel, like when Kathy Carrick talked about visiting the Himalayas. “And the exercises are great and the brain fitness program,” Clifford continued. “I think there is an activity for everyone to choose to become a part of” because the offerings are so broad.

One of Densberger’s tasks was to call people in Calistoga to spread the word about Rianda House programs taking place at the Calistoga Community Center.

“I liked doing the phone calls the other day to people in Calistoga, because that’s where I was raised,” she said. Densberger heard familiar voices and those on the line figured out who she was, and “through those conversations, I realized then that I want to help in that town as well.”

When a person walks into Rianda House, they come into a hallway. The coffee pot and cups are on a small table on the right and the newspapers are on chairs on the left. The greeters are at a small desk at the end of the hall, next to the larger room where many programs are held.

Spencer said the hallway can get crowded. “The folks who envisioned Rianda House probably didn’t have a clue that on some days, we can have a couple hundred people walk in this door and come in through the hallways. And the greeters with smiles and a welcoming approach will greet every single person. They help us collect data, do some promotion and ask what people want and need and are aware if somebody has an issue or a risk. And it is all happening at the same time.”

Next week: More greeters, a founding board member and now an instructor and participants in some of Rianda House’s many programs.

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St. Helena Star Editor

David Stoneberg is the editor of the St. Helena Star, an award-winning weekly newspaper. Prior to joining the Star in 2006, he worked for the Lake County Record-Bee, the Clear Lake Observer American, the Middletown Times Star and The Weekly Calistogan.

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