Part 2 of 2
It’s important to know that St. Helena’s Rianda House Senior Activity Center was created from Jean Rianda’s home because it’s relaxing and welcoming.
For Jule Grant, who has been a greeter at Rianda House for the past four or five years, Rianda House is not institutional and still feels like a home. “For those of us who live alone, it can be a second home,” she said. For some people, it may be the only place in a day or a week where they meet others and have a face-to-face conversation.
“You need that to keep your mind alive, your heart alive and your soul alive,” Grant said. “They don’t want you to talk at church, they don’t want you to talk at the library, so you come here to meet people.”
Gunilda R. “Jean” Pistorius Rianda was born in 1907 in Rutherford, moved to St. Helena with her family in 1913 and graduated from St. Helena High School in 1925. After a nursing career in San Francisco, she married Walter Rianda and they moved to St. Helena in 1952. She was the treasurer of a seniors group that met in the Carnegie Building. Toward the end of her life, she decided to donate her home to a group of people for a senior center.
As Rianda House celebrates more than a decade since it first opened in 2008, the Star decided to take a deep dive into the nonprofit organization, with help from Executive Director Julie Spencer. On Friday, Jan. 18, 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. Those interviewed included office staff, board members, greeters, instructors and participants. 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?
Besides Grant, Mary Larson and Bob Beckstrom are two of the dozen or so greeters at Rianda House.
Larson has been a greeter for the past nine years and initially started being a volunteer because her work was slowing down, there wasn’t much going on socially, and she said, “Volunteerism is an important thing to do, so I came here.”
Why is Rianda House important? “It provides a very large variety of activities for (people with) different interests,” Larson said. “I’m always amazed as a greeter when you meet new people, who may have moved here because their children are here, this is their connecting point, where they meet new people. One activity a week can change people’s lives in terms of their social contact.”
Beckstom said when he thinks of Rianda House he thinks of community. Not only is he a greeter – working Friday mornings – he is a participant in Carroll Cotten’s Thursday morning gathering, “Gents & A Cuppa Joe.” Beckstrom said, “We’ve got some real characters and real legends in that room, sharing stories about the early days of St. Helena and the wine industry and their experiences working with the wineries.”
He said the discussions range from serious topics, what is happening in town, to news of city politics to more personal experiences. “We share our stories, our personal remembrances,” he said.
Beckstrom said he’s always worked hard, doing things with the Chamber of Commerce and the Kiwanis Club. “I should say I was involved with this house before it was Rianda House,” he added. In 2003, when Jean Rianda donated her home to be a senior center, one of the first jobs needed was to gut the interior.
“A bunch of us from the Kiwanis Club came over with sledgehammers and shovels and wheelbarrows and dust masks and spent a day or two and with a couple of dumpsters and got the thing cleaned out before others could transform it,” Beckstrom said. Others who helped with the initial demolition included Troop One Boy Scouts.
Longtime St. Helena resident Kathy Carrick, too, has been around Rianda House since its beginning, serving as a founding board member. “I was on the board from the first meeting until I was termed out six years later,” Carrick said. During that time, the board renovated Jean Rianda’s home, with the help of a $690,000 construction loan, started offering activities and hired Julie Spencer as executive director.
What are your memories of some of those first meetings? Carrick was asked. “What we struggled with most is that all of us on the board got what this would be, but nobody else in town got it. People kept thinking we were going to build some kind of home or day care or nursing home. No, it’s a recreation center,” Carrick said. “Being in the recreation profession, it was a no-brainer for me, but lots of people didn’t understand all the facets of what a senior center could be. Our board understood what this would be, but people in town didn’t quite get it.”
Greta Ericson, a longtime friend of Jean Rianda’s, led the first board of directors. Joining her were Jay Greene, Elaine Hudson, Tamara Traeder, Barbie Moller, Thelma Stratton, Bill Savidge, Sue Robbins, Lynn Fontaine, Mel Varrelman, Gene Armstead, Joice Beatty and Kathy Carrick.
Today Carrick is a volunteer instructor, who teaches an exercise class on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. Its focus is on maintaining muscle strength, continuing to keep bone density and balance. Carrick taught at Napa Valley College for 28 years and when she retired in 2010, she said, “I had a class full of women who said what are we going to do? I think I know how to solve this, so Rianda House became the sponsoring agency for the class.”
Carrick denies that she works hard as an instructor, adding that she teaches the class “because it benefits me and those who are in my class. When it comes down to it, I’m kind of a ham, so I like having a stage to perform – being an exercise teacher gives me that stage.”
Both greeters Jule Grant and Mary Larson said they don’t work that hard as greeters, although Larson drives from Pope Valley to be a greeter. “I’m always happy when I leave here that I’ve done something valuable,” she said.
Grant added that a woman from France told her, “It’s so nice to see you here every Monday morning and I thought, oh boy, that makes my day.”
Larson said one of her skills is “being consistent and showing up on Friday afternoon. My favorite part, besides greeting the people is doing the dishes afterward, making sure the cups are dry before they are put upside down. That’s very satisfying to me.”
In 2019, Beckstrom said he’s going to “keep doing what I’m doing. Plus encourage as many friends and contacts that I can to look it over, to get involved, maybe become a greeter because we need volunteers all the time.”
He added that Rianda House fits very well into St. Helena, with its location on Main Street right next to the post office. Beyond that, though, the organization and the people running it – Spencer, her staff and the board – “could be running a Fortune 500 company, as far as I’m concerned,” Beckstrom said. “Like Jule said, Rianda House feels like home. It’s a nexus between having a quality lifestyle and being down home, helping people and having a broad community base and I think, in that respect, it reflects this town very well.”
Three people — Jeff Farmer, Celia Cummings and Dennis McGuire — regularly take eight classes between them at Rianda House. The classes include Mah Jong, Techno Tuesdays, Readers Theater, a current events class, memoir writing and a spirituality class.
McGuire, who is a retired psychologist from Texas, lives at Silverado Orchards. He takes four classes and he said all are interesting with good instructors and adds, “It keeps me busy. I was thinking as I was coming over here that I didn’t know about Rianda House when I moved here and selected an apartment at Silverado Orchards in St. Helena. If I wasn’t coming to Rianda House, I’d be sitting around Silverado Orchards all day. It gives me a place to go.”
McGuire is taking a course on spirituality, something he’s been interested in for a long time, but didn’t have time to explore when he was working. For him, Rianda House is important for three reasons: the quality of the instruction, a place to go during the day and the social interaction.
Cummings regularly joins a group of women on Friday afternoons for mahjong and recently participated in Techno Tuesdays, where middle school students from St. Helena and Angwin come to Rianda House and, in Cummings’ words, “help us seniors with learning and solving any problems we have with laptops and cellphones.” She said the class is wonderful, because students get to interact with seniors, “because otherwise they wouldn’t.”
Recently, she needed help with her cell phone. “Apparently, the boy who worked with me last week didn’t want to come,” Cummings said, because he is shy, but his sister forced him to come to Rianda House. How did the session go? “I think it went very well and he’s a very nice kid. He was able to set me on the right path,” she said.
For Cummings, Rianda House is “very important” for seniors who live alone. “It’s wonderful to have friends and you have a social life here,” she added, saying Rianda House is kind of like home. Beyond that, “the classes are good, the leadership is dynamic and the quality of this senior center is absolutely top notch.”
Farmer lives around the corner from Rianda House on Tainter Street. He said he remembers a time before there was a senior center. “Several of the people I knew, couples mostly, lost a partner and they were alone. Then Rianda House came and I started seeing them coming here and regaining a social life and regaining connections to the community,” he said.
Farmer mostly participates in the current events class. “The reason I like it is it forces me to listen to viewpoints that I don’t want to listen to,” he said, “And incorporate other people’s viewpoints into my own. And, it makes me defend my viewpoints to other people.”
Attending the class helps Farmer keep his mind going. “The social aspect of that is very strong,” he said.
Why is Rianda House important? Farmer said it gives people a social connection, provides activities that are generally interesting, and is “a kingpin of our community.”
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