Sharon Svoboda, activities and volunteer coordinator at The Oaks, brightens residents’ lives

April 6, 2014 

After Sharon Svoboda took her job, she introduced several twists to the daily routine at The Oaks at Pleasant Gap senior care facility.

On a recent Thursday morning, she encouraged a few more.

Svoboda, the activities and volunteer coordinator, was leading a yoga class, one of her many additions to The Oaks since she started the job two years ago.

In an exercise room, five women stood in a semi-circle before her, each propped on one leg while holding onto a chair for balance. Svoboda did the same. Everyone pivoted their torsos to the left.

Svoboda reminded them not to forget another motion.

“Remember, breathing,” she said.

“If we weren’t, we’d fall on the floor,” one resident said.

Svoboda chuckled. “That’s what I’m worried about.”

Nobody toppled, and the class progressed smoothly for another 20 minutes. After some Sun Salutations involving bends to the front, sides and back, Svoboda shifted to a more strenuous Warrior Pose for a deeper stretch.

“I wish I had a picture of you guys when we started this,” Svoboda said. “You’d be so impressed.”

She sounded genuinely glad, proud even, to lift their spirits as they raised their hands while completing the pose.

But that’s what friends are for.

At 27, Svoboda is responsible for brightening the lives of people three times her age. It’s her pleasure, though, for she considers them companions rather than charges.

They learn together, from one another, through her changes to the facility’s recreational offerings: tai chi, yoga, sing-alongs, tea tastings, gardening, dumbbell lifting, knitting, poetry club, bell choir and a host of other activities beyond the usual birthday parties and bingo games.

“We help each other. Sharon is the epitome of that,” resident Edith Hebel said. “She’s learning as well as we are. We’re sharing what we have. She’s sharing what she has. I think that’s why we’re so comfortable with Sharon.”

Said resident Marilyn Shaw: “Her energy is infectious. She keeps us running.”

Respect and affection drive Svoboda.

They inspire her to play her ukulele in the building lobby or her piano in the dining room with extra feeling. They motivate her to lead excursions to restaurants, craft stores and the Arboretum at Penn State.

She’s not surrounded by old people. They’re mentors, buddies, confidantes, full of life and wisdom like her beloved grandmother was.

Every work day, she reports to more than a job. She resumes a lively social club.

“My husband and I joke that more of my friends are in their 80s and 90s than they are my own age,” she said.

Connection with older people

Svoboda and her husband, Nick, a Penn State music graduate student, grew up in Monroeville and met in the eighth grade.

As a teenager, she developed another deep relationship.

She and her grandmother had always been close. But when they visited in a nursing home, the bond tightened.

Daily, Svoboda would keep her grandmother company, sitting in on activities or just talking.

“She was just that one special person in my life,” Svoboda said.

“That connection we had was something I know will never be replaced or duplicated. It was very, very special.”

She soaked up her grandmother’s childhood memories. She shared news from high school, then Clarion University — about her studies, friends, her future spouse.

“Just talking with her, spending time with her, made me feel so happy and loved,” Svoboda said. “When I went to college, I would still come home on Fridays and make sure I got home in time for bingo.”

She no longer has her grandmother. But before losing her, Svoboda gained an enduring gift.

Though she couldn’t know it at the time, the visits helped prepare her for her future.

At Clarion, she started out in special education, volunteering to assist people with disabilities, but ended up with a liberal studies degree and a minor in women’s studies.

After her 2009 graduation, she worked briefly at a garden center, a choice befitting someone with a green thumb. But it wasn’t her calling.

She saw that Manor Care’s Monroeville nursing home needed an activity assistant.

That struck a chord. She knew about nursing homes, about their residents.

She could do the job.

“Part of me wanted to get back into that because I kind of missed it,” she said.

“I missed being around it, not just being around my grandmother when I’d be there playing bingo with her and doing other things. But I was inadvertently visiting other people as well and kind of connecting with them.”

In her element

Svoboda discovered she was in her element.

“I’ve always been very comfortable with older people, I guess,” she said.

“There’s something about that older generation. Maybe it’s their wisdom. Maybe it’s their more relaxed attitude. I think people who are younger, we’re very stressed because we don’t know what’s coming. People who are older have already been through it.”

Soon enough, she also realized the home’s activities calendar consisted of little more than the traditional “three B’s” of birthday parties, bingo and Bible studies.

“I thought, ‘You know what? I’ve got some interests and skills that maybe these people would like to do,’ ” she said.

Svoboda and the other assistant, a music therapist named Darah Jones, revamped the activities program so energetically they were known as the “dynamic duo.”

Their partnership influenced Svoboda. She learned specific tips, such as the value of planning sing-alongs around specific themes, and larger points, such as the benefit of collaborative, creative thinking.

“Just learning together, trying to do games together, just bouncing ideas off one another,” Svoboda said.

“We would throw parties for the residents, and we would have our different ideas. I was more the arts and crafts person, and she really wasn’t,” Svoboda said.

“She didn’t know what to do with a bottle of glue. We were such a great balance, and we learned from each other.”

Moving to State College

After Jones left for Indiana, Svoboda also moved on.

Enamored with the work, she had decided to become a board certified activities director through a National Association of Activity Professionals course. Her credentials gave her confidence to search for a new challenge.

“I felt like I could do much more and I wanted to branch out,” she said.

Because her husband was considering returning to his alma mater for graduate school, she took The Oaks position and the couple moved to State College.

In May 2012, she started, flying solo.

“At first, I think I was pretty timid at getting started,” she said. “I didn’t know what (residents) were expecting.”

She proceeded slowly, essentially birthdays and bingo, gradually expanding the calendar with more arts and crafts, live music, exercise, poetry and other interests of hers as her comfort level grew.

“Because I knew coming into this that I couldn’t throw all my activities on the residents right away,” she said. “They needed to trust me first.”

Several said they do completely. They appreciate her flexibility, her openness to their suggestions. They admire her creativity and dedication on their behalf.

“We have a lot more in the way of groups of people doing things than we had before since she has been here,” Iris Franco said

Even more, residents say, they enjoy Svoboda’s company, that she doesn’t treat them like children. They love knitting, exercising, singing, dining or just chatting with her.

Age be damned: She’s one of them.

“She has a lot of respect for all of what we’ve been up to this point,” Hebel said. “A lot of people look at institutions like this as places for people to sit out the rest of their lives. Not here.”

“That’s not good enough for me, too,” Svoboda, listening, replied.

Maybe the tipping point for her came about a year into the job, when residents trusted her enough to don grass skirts, coconut bras and beach hats for a goofy relay race during a luau-themed party.

Or perhaps the moment happened six months earlier, when the dietary supervisor turned to her and said that it felt as though she had always been there.

“And I felt it,” Svoboda said. “I felt like I really fit in here.”

Learning a lot

Svoboda, smiling, held up her partially finished baby sweater for her gray-haired knitting partners to see.

“There’s no baby so I don’t have to rush or anything,” she said to laughter.

From Franco and Hebel, her knitting gurus, she has learned stitches. Shaw also has had a hand in Svoboda’s education.

“The most fun thing I’ve had is to teach Sharon not to be afraid of the sewing machine, and now she’s making quilts,” Shaw said.

All along, discovery has been a two-way street for everyone.

Svoboda, a yoga practitioner, started a gentle class. She also launched monthly loose leaf tea tastings, with varieties from around the world, and gardening programs, among other introductions.

In return, she has picked up new crafts, such as quilling, the rolling and shaping of tiny paper scraps to create designs. After a resident expressed interest in it, she couldn’t find an instructor. So she nominated herself.

“She’s taught us interesting things, and she’s learned a lot,” Franco said.

Svoboda found that a pleasant surprise.

“I knew I had a lot of eclectic skills and interests that I could bring, and I think I knew I was going to use them in some way, but I never expected to learn so much from the residents,” she said. “That kind of snowballed.”

Her growth has included broadening her card-playing skills and musical horizons, adding 1960s folk songs to her repertoire at the request of residents.

“Everybody assumes that all old people want are just those old songs, those memory songs. And it’s not,” said Hebel, who previously asked Svoboda if she would play more of the serious piano compositions she practices in her spare time.

“Because a lot of those old songs are not our old songs. I’d rather listen to the folk songs than ‘Let Me Call You Sweetheart.’ ”

Svoboda belongs to the Millennial Generation, at ease with the digital revolution. When her husband played a recent live-streamed concert, she suggested showing it on the TV, via a laptop, in the community room so that residents could see it without having to go to State College.

Yet she values the past, grateful to be enlightened by those with decades of triumphs, tragedies and hard-earned lessons behind them.

Of all the knowledge she has gained, perspective has been the best — a reward that never shows in her paycheck.

“I feel like I learn so much from them, not just about their needs, but about life in general and what’s important,” she said.

“I think a lot of people my age are very immersed in technology and their cellphones and their Facebook and all that. I’m lucky. I have all these experiences where I can get so much more from my life. (Residents) never grew up with any of that stuff, and look how they turned out.”

Grieving and laughing

At least once a week, Svoboda knocks on the doors of residents who don’t attend group activities.

“Some of them have really come to expect these visits and they really enjoy them,” she said. “They’ll share some things with me. They’ll talk about their pasts. They’ll talk about their children, share some personal things. That’s a huge responsibility for me, and I take it seriously.”

Her work isn’t all sunshine, of course. Some days, some people, try her deep reservoirs of patience more than others.

And she grieves as well as laughs, an inescapable reality reinforced by every memorial service. It’s the price for caring deeply.

In a year, because of her husband’s career, she might have to move again, a prospect that already saddens residents.

But until then, reminiscent of her grandmother, she’ll nurture her treasured relationships — one moment at a time.

Svoboda noticed a woman’s walker bag was falling apart.

The next morning, as the resident ate breakfast, her activities coordinator sat in the corner, holding her own craft session to fix the bag.

After all, that’s what friends do.

“Just because she needed it done,” Svoboda said.

“It’s not in my job description, but who else is going to do it? I have the time and know-how, so why not do it?”

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