How the Santa Rosa Senior Center director helps seniors be like kids again

How the Santa Rosa Senior Center director helps seniors be like kids again

Senior Center Director Kathy Forsyth is building a vibrant community for older adults in Santa Rosa, California.

“I’m passionate about people,” Kathy Forsyth said. “And I’ve always had a soft spot for seniors.”

Today, as Senior Center Director for The Salvation Army in Santa Rosa, California, she demonstrates that passion.

Forsyth first connected with The Salvation Army in Florida, when her oldest son, Charlie, entered the St. Petersburg Adult Rehabilitation Center (ARC). Previously she knew little about The Salvation Army and its services.

“Everybody knows about the bells,” she said. “I would always throw money in the kettle but I never thought about volunteering for The Salvation Army. Having four children and being a single mom there was no time.”

When the ARC program worked for Charlie after previous experiences elsewhere had not, Forsyth wanted to show her appreciation. Although she didn’t have much time, she volunteered as a bellringer at The Salvation Army’s red kettles during the holidays. She hasn’t missed a season in 16 years.

How the Santa Rosa Senior Center director helps seniors be like kids again
Photo by John Docter.

After she moved to Santa Rosa, Forsyth volunteered with The Salvation Army’s local Emergency/Disaster Services (EDS) team. Meanwhile she was looking for full-time work while running her own decluttering business.

“It took me a while to find a job because I didn’t want just a job,” she said. “I wanted a job that I’m passionate about, so I can do my best at it. If you get a job and it’s not really your thing, you’re never going to do what you’re really cut out for, so I waited it out.”

In the summer of 2022, she was attending a Salvation Army fundraising event when she overheard someone mention an open position at the senior center—it sounded like she’d be a great fit. In Florida, she had worked as a community center director for 20 years, managing a variety of special events.

Today Forsyth is using these skills to build The Salvation Army’s senior program in Santa Rosa. The center is adjacent to the Santa Rosa Silvercrest, one of The Salvation Army’s residences designed to provide affordable senior housing.

Open Monday through Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., the Senior Center offers both scheduled activities and a place to just hang out and relax. Forsyth said the center averages 60 people daily, with about 12 staying all day.

One of her goals is to attract more seniors from the larger community, since many of the regulars are Silvercrest residents. Currently only 20 percent of attendees are from the general community.

“It’s been a battle,” she said. “People think because they don’t live in the Silvercrest, they can’t come here.”

How the Santa Rosa Senior Center director helps seniors be like kids again
Photo by John Docter.

Others don’t know the center exists.

Recently, a Santa Rosa resident wrote to the local newspaper asking why the city had only one senior center run by the county parks and recreation department. Forsyth wrote back, informing the paper and its readers about The Salvation Army Senior Center.

“I think I’ve gotten 12 new members since then, from a tiny article on the editorial page,” she said. “If we get a quarter-page ad, and more people see it, can you imagine how many people will finally start coming?”

When they come, they’ll find a place where they can hang out and talk, watch a movie, or play chess or pool.

“We all chill out together,” Forsyth said. “I’ll go in there… and bust their chops a little and then I come back to my office. It’s a nice little break for me.”

During the center’s recent renovation, Forsyth and her assistant, Gabriel AlcazarCuevas, held outdoor activities including shuffleboard and cornhole. They plan to do more, weather permitting.

And they have guests, including speakers from Jack London State Park and the Santa Rosa Park and Recreation Rangers—topics beyond Medicaid and those typically associated with seniors.

“Because my background is environmental education, I’m all about nature,” she said. “So I’m trying to bring it in here. Who doesn’t love to learn about nature?”

Sometimes she’ll conduct an earth science activity with the seniors, like dissecting owl pellets. She said she’s been doing these activities for years with her kids.

“These people are like kids again,” she said. “They enjoy it when I do these silly, crazy things with them.”

Sometimes Forsyth will tell the seniors she has a surprise for them the following week.

“They like that,” she said. “They never know what I’m going to do, and that’s what brings them back.”

And they surprise her.

How the Santa Rosa Senior Center director helps seniors be like kids again
Photo by John Docter.

One woman, who was always quiet and shy, came to life at a Valentine’s party, which featured a lot of balloons that the seniors were trying to keep afloat.

“And then at the end of the party, this little lady—she has to be in her 70s—had the best time popping every balloon that we had blown up. It was so hilarious.”

This was a treasured moment for Forsyth, who has a framed photo on the wall of the woman popping the balloons. Forsyth likes to have keepsakes of these special moments.

Sometimes, a senior needs extra care, and Forsyth is ready to provide it. If a regular misses a day, she will call them to make sure they’re OK. She’s also willing to contact the pharmacy to check on seniors’ prescriptions, and she will help them write their checks to pay bills if they need assistance. She even took one man to the hospital when he had an eye infection.

“Kathy has created a space where our seniors feel safe, cared for and loved. For many, the Senior Activity Center is a home away from home where Kathy has created an atmosphere of belonging and care,” Santa Rosa Corps Officer Captain Sean Kelsey said.

For the seniors, it’s simple.

“The people in charge are nice,” said Gayle Prentice and Gladys Ubieta, who were working together on a jigsaw puzzle. “What keeps us coming back are the people.”

And Forsyth is the driving force at the center.

“I’m grateful for what I’m doing now,” she said. “I’m passionate about my job.”


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