The Other Side of 50 Feb. 2012

Yvonne Griffen’s joie di vivre blesses El Dorado Hills

By From page D2 | February 29, 2012

Most people move closer to their children when they retire. But when Senior of the Year Yvonne Griffen of El Dorado Hills retired in 2000, she moved away from her daughters in the Bay Area.

As it turned out, Marin County’s loss was El Dorado County’s gain.

When the annual “Senior of the Year” nominations occurred last summer, Griffen, now 73, had no idea that colleagues at the El Dorado Hills Senior Center had nominated her with such glowing, yet truthful conviction.

Griffen had no idea that she would be honored for the volunteer service, talents and time she shares. It has been a willing and gracious journey that has blessed her as much or more than those she serves.

“It is quite the honor,” Griffen, said with enthusiasm. “When I listened to the accomplishments and service of the other seven nominees, I was humbled by their generosity and good works. So when they announced that I was the Senior of the Year, I was amazed … and very honored.”

The honor, according to Griffen, is even more appreciated since it was so unexpected, something she had not worked for consciously. She was simply filling a need that she observed.

Her eyes were opened by Moni Gilmore, who she had met in a senior exercise class.

“Moni encouraged me to volunteer in the Senior Nutrition Program here … and the rest just fell into place,” Griffen said.

Griffen admired Gilmore’s proactive role in assuring services and hope for area seniors. And when Gilmore died, it seems that Griffen traded hats with her. For in Griffen, area seniors continue to have a good-hearted champion.

Griffen, like Gilmore, continues to advocate relentlessly and eloquently for senior rights and services. She walks the walk, dedicating her time, energy and skills to the program.

Griffen has become a light in the El Dorado Hills Senior Center. Along with other capable volunteers, Griffen makes sure that the center is a ray of hope, a place of camaraderie and cheer for those who need it the most.

First volunteer committment

Sometimes just Griffen’s warm greeting and smile brightens a day. At first, Griffen’s commitment was to help with the Senior Nutrition Program, setting tables, making coffee, cleaning up … whatever was needed just one day a week.

But then the center’s musical group, the El Dorado Fun Time Band, lost their sound mixer and saxophone player. They asked Griffen, who plays the piano, to be their sound mixer, a temporary solution. Griffen has been the sound mixer, an activity she enjoys, and one that has assured her continuous presence.

Sharing talents

“Besides providing the senior nutrition lunch, classes and activities, our senior center provides a good movie once a month, music and fun. Janet does a wonderful job coordinating everything. There are so many challenges for our senior citizens, and many are facing even more anxiety with the economy — their 401(k)s and stocks have dwindled, and their retirement dreams have been crushed,” Griffen sympathized. “It is a difficult time, so we are hoping to provide more transportation to enable more seniors to enjoy the center and get around to shop and so forth … our ideas are still in the planning stage, but El Dorado Hills has no public transportation, often making life more difficult for seniors.”

Another trend that Griffen has observed is that people can no longer retire. They reach retirement age and realize that they cannot afford to retire, so they keep working whenever possible. Of course, this phenomenon makes it difficult for college graduates who cannot find the jobs they envisioned.

Teaching role

Besides helping with the lunches and sound mixing, Griffen began teaching a senior exercise class twice a week. Not only did it help others, it assured her own participation, making one of those win-win situations with helping others ultimately and unwittingly helping oneself.

Subsequently, Griffen was inspired to teach French, which is her native language. Though born here, Griffen’s parents made sure to rear their daughter in French language, culture and values.

This experience makes Griffen compassionate, understanding what others who go to school without first speaking English go through. The lessons at her parochial school were in English, but many of the nuns/teachers spoke French. Still, she can empathize with the culture shock of starting school without English skills.

“I feel so blessed to have been brought up speaking two languages and appreciating two cultures,” Griffen said. “It is so enriching. Of course, one of my hobbies is to travel, so I have had so many wonderful adventures.”

One of Griffen’s passions is cooking. She has taught a few French cooking classes at the center over the years, but it is too labor-intensive to offer all the time.

Time for hobbies

Griffen has hobbies, like reading and traveling, which keep her interested and busy. Still, she makes the time to volunteer daily at the senior center, encouraging others to develop hobbies to keep them alive and vital.

“So many seniors are isolated. Their children convinced them to move nearby … and then are too busy to include them in their lives. They become lonely. I recommend that seniors stay in their old towns and neighborhoods; too often seniors move only to feel disappointed and displaced. And if they are in that situation, I recommend finding interests and hobbies to keep them active,” Griffen said.

So Griffen did the opposite, choosing to be in another town, away from the rigors of daily parenting/grandparenting. After working hard all her life, it was Griffen’s time to indulge in her own passions. It was not exclusive of family, just a little more distant. It worked, giving Griffen the opportunity to get in touch with her own desires.

Incessant, but joyful work

It turned out that her desire was to continue to work, to remain active for the sake of humanity. When Griffen retired, she was still young and vital, and she is still that way.

Griffen doesn’t look or act like a senior and probably never will. In fact, she not only works indefatigably at the senior center, she has a real, paid, part-time job with the El Dorado Hills Community Services District, her organizational skills appreciated and continue in even more tangible ways.

Griffen wanted to be a full-time mother to her girls, Michelle and Suzanne. So she worked from home, transcribing dictation for “a penny and a half” per line.

Working from home gave her the opportunity to volunteer at the girl’s school, and she even undertook the task of tutoring some at-risk children. There was not much interest on their part, but Griffen was determined to spark their reading skills.

She figured the only way she could encourage them was to find something that would interest them. So she asked them what they liked, and took them to the library so they could check out books on what truly fascinated them. It worked. It wasn’t a panacea, Griffen explained, but it seemed to help.

Years later, Griffen ran into a handsome, confident young man in the supermarket.

“Mrs. Griffen,” he exclaimed, while she scrambled in her memory to place him. “You tutored me in the third grade. I just always wanted to … thank you.”

Skills are appreciated

Griffen, brought up in a working class family with a strong work ethic, excelled as a student. When she did enter the work force, her organizational skills and more gave her an edge, and launched her into positions of responsibility where she flourished.

Interestingly, she began part time, and when the boss realized she got more accomplished part time than the regular fulltime employee, her expertise was in demand.

Her scholastic skills were also enhanced by 10 years of piano lessons, which increased confidence and the ability to discipline oneself and to strive for excellence.

Thus when Griffen entered the workforce, her career flourished. She retired from civil service as a senior property manager, a position that required great responsibility and attention to detail.

Hard work

For a woman whose ideal was to stay home with her family, Griffen shined in her profession. Besides a certain flair and confidence, Griffen’s previous successes don’t seem to make her conceited or unapproachable.

She remains down-to-earth, firmly rooted in the values with which she was raised. Her immigrant parents worked hard in rather menial jobs, just trying to make it in America, their humble roots and ambitions translated to their daughter, seemingly giving her an outlook of fairness, compassion and joy.

When Griffen retired, it was time to take time for herself. She settled into her “perfect” Serrano home in July 2001. It is large enough, she said, to entertain in, but small enough to accommodate her needs. After having searched in the areas off Highway 80, particularly some Del Webb developments, she knew that the culture there was not her cup of tea. On a whim, she decided to search in Serrano, which had been advertising heavily in the Bay Area.

And she found her new home. A home, and ultimately a community that gave her the wings to be herself, which entails helping others and using her skills to better humanity.

With her outlook influenced by her natural French “joie de vivre” and engrained work ethic, Griffen’s retirement spawned work and responsibility that she chooses freely, providing rewards a paycheck doesn’t guarantee, joy in inspiring others and doing her best to benefit her community and society.

Griffen loves her adopted town, nestled in the foothills like she had imagined for years. But her busy weeks are counterbalanced with the French penchant for finding fun, and Griffen finds inspiration in solitude to provide the recharge she needs for her busy, yet “retired” schedule.

Solitude, beauty give joy

Besides traveling and reading, Griffen’s one indulgence is a cabin retreat near Truckee, where she finds solitude within the forest. After a busy week, she enjoys the peace and freedom of her isolated abode.

An avid reader, her books and travel seem to hone her compassion and her dedication to use her skills to help others.

Griffen has two daughters and two grandsons, so she visits the Bay Area frequently for holidays and other occasions. She will be on hand in Marin County to applaud her grandson, Matt, 16 as he makes his directorial debut. He has been smitten with the drama bug and is a fine actor. Daughter Michelle visits mom quite frequently, bringing Griffen’s beloved “granddog” Max, a darling Yorkshire Terrier, which delights Griffen. Max warms her heart and provides nurturing joy without the responsibility and disruption of a personal pet.

Griffen knew that she would be close enough to continue to be a wonderful mother and grandmother, but far enough away to seek her own joy. In fact, she has acquired an even a larger family, a community of friends and senior acquaintances she cares about.

It is a joy that she shares willingly and graciously, while enjoying the activities and work her volunteerism entails.

Being named Senior of the Year was an unexpected joy and a “wonderful honor.” But even without such recognition, Griffen would continue to work tireless and relentlessly for the common good, especially advocating for seniors.

“I encourage everyone in El Dorado County to go to their local senior center. There are resources and programs that will keep you vital and interested. And by all means, volunteer if you can. Without volunteers, there is no way we could do all this. There are so many opportunities to help in the Senior Nutrition Program. Those who deliver meals to the homebound are so important, often the only link and friendly greeting someone will get all day. If you cannot volunteer, at least become involved. There are so many things you can do to dispel depression and loneliness. Helping others and getting out there is the key. You may be inspired to use your talents to help others, the greatest gift that we can give any time.”

Like so many others, Griffen left the Bay Area seeking a peaceful existence which she found in El Dorado County. It is also fruitful and busy, all a part of Griffen’s kindness, firm convictions, talents, gifts and “joie de vivre” she shares so delightfully with others. As always, when one gives, the benefit is mutually rewarding, a result seemingly reflected in the smile Griffen shares with colleagues, visitors, students and friends daily at the El Dorado Hills Senior Center.

e-mail [email protected]

Susana Carey Wey

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