How Chopping Lettuce Gives These Lodi Seniors Purpose

Noreen all smiles, getting ready to serve lunch at Salvation Army. Photo courtesy of Vienna.

Noreen all smiles, getting ready to serve lunch at Salvation Army. Photo courtesy of Vienna.

This Thursday is a little different than most mornings at Vienna. Starting at 9:00AM, residents start to wheel and walk their way into the main dining room, put on hair nets, aprons, and gloves, and get to chopping. Once a month, the residents of Vienna get together and prepare a nutritious meal for the women of Salvation Army, in a program called “Serving Smiles.” Residents love the program, and what I love about it is it makes residents feel proud. Making and serving a meal may not seem like a big deal, but for the men and women doing the work, it’s an opportunity to have a purpose and give back, and sometimes when you’re living in a skilled nursing facility opportunities like that can be limited. It’s something we take for granted. We don’t realize how much of our identity is wrapped in our ability to care for others until that is taken away. That’s what makes this program so special.

The idea came from a program called “A Heart to Serve.” The creator, Mike Wasserman, saw this need for people care homes to have a greater purpose. A lot of these people, just like at Vienna, may have MS, dementia, are no longer able to walk, etc., but their heart is still in the right place. And as long as their heart wants to serve, they should be able to serve, hence the name “A Heart to Serve.” Vienna’s administrator, Corey, saw this program and was moved by it. Besides the obvious benefit of residents having the opportunity to give back, they found it reduced depression and helped with other chronic conditions. Why wouldn’t you want to a program that’s important to people, improves their quality of life, and benefits others in the community? It’s a win win, and at very little cost. As soon as Corey was back from his conference, he implemented the program at Vienna, and the company hasn’t looked back.

Many of the residents who participate have spent most of their lives serving others, so this an opportunity to get back to their roots. Most spent their entire lives working and as parents. They identify themselves as caregivers, and feel happy and confident back in this role. There’s a job for everyone, so no matter what the ailment. Anyone who wants to participate can participate. From chopping lettuce to baking brownies, everyone gets to chip in.

To complete this story, I talked with one woman who participates nearly every single month, Noreen. I wanted to share her perspective and why this program matters to her.

Vienna seniors serving the chef salad lunch they prepared. Photo courtesy of Vienna.

Vienna seniors serving the chef salad lunch they prepared. Photo courtesy of Vienna.

JAMIE: Hi Noreen! Thank for sitting down to talk to me.

NOREEN: Of course.

J: Okay, since readers don’t have the pleasure of knowing you, go ahead and introduce yourselves.

N: Can I start at the beginning? I came over to the United States in 1947 on a ship (from Ireland). I was 17. I was at sea for 10 days and landed in New York City on the 10th day and there was a good few feet of snow! My aunt and uncle picked me up and took me to the Bronx New York where I lived for two weeks with them. I came here to work and I did. I found two jobs as a maid, and then eventually I went to work for a place called Madison Square Gardens. That’s where I met my husband. I worked in the kitchen, did all kinds of kitchen work. Today I have four kids, two sons, two daughters. My one son is in Woodbridge and the other ones are on the East Coast.

J: Can you tell me about the Serving Smiles program?

N: Well we smile (laughs). We prepare the food and then we get to bring it over to the Salvation Army. It’s awesome, I love it. I think it’s great doing work for the Salvation Army. They’re so devoted and so caring. The smiles on their face, they don’t know how to thank you enough for what you’re doing… I think it’s wonderful. Absolutely wonderful. I’m so glad I get to do this work for the Salvation Army. And people will say you’re handicapped? And I say yes, but I can still do it.

J: What is your favorite part of this program?

N: Serving the people.

J: Why is giving back important to you?

N: Because that’s my nature. I’ve always been like that, that’s who I am. I’ve always been caring and loving. I like being able to care for people. If a stranger came up to me, and I could see they had a good heart, I would help them.

Round Up Questions

J: What problem do you believe this program solves?

N: It’s from your heart and it’s caring. A good hearted person does that, and it makes people feel loved and cared for. Everybody says you have a broken hip yet you get on the bus and serve other people? And I say, yep. It’s the biggest thrill of my life.

J: What do you want other people to know about this program?

N: I would like them to know they should all be more caring, more giving, and smile more. Don’t be so grumpy!

J: Who inspires you?

N: A lot of people. Even people I don’t even know. Just seeing people happy inspires me.

J: If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be?

N: To pack my bags and be back in Ireland. But it’s not that easy. I love it here, everyone is nice, this is my home, but I would like to go back to where I grew up.

* * *

Thanks to Noreen for sharing her story with me, and for being part of this program. To learn more about this program, or Vienna's other programs click here to visit their website.