Richard Gottlieb, Defender of Dignity

Richard Gottlieb, the CEO of Senior Services.

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This article originally appeared on on September 15th, 2015.

“Now before we start I have to tell you that I usually don’t talk about myself. But I understand that is what you are looking for, so for you I will,” he says with a serious tone, then smiles.”

“Well thank goodness,” I joke.

I understood. He is not the first to feel uncomfortable narrating his own story; I get it. He adds, “For me, the organization, the people, are so much more important.”

That initial exchange set the tone for the rest of my time with him. You often hear that actions speak far louder than words, and I have to say, when it comes to Richard Gottlieb, nothing could be more true.

Richard landed on my “Townies to profile” list early on as his name continued to pop up whenever I used the words “philanthropy”, “doer” and “community” in conversation. “He is by far the hardest working and best Executive Director in all of Winston-Salem. It is the most efficiently run nonprofit in town,” said one Townie. “He is incredibly kind and has developed a really amazing organization over there” said another.

He came to Winston-Salem over thirty years ago by way of Hartford, Connecticut in support of his wife. She was attending a two-year program to become a physician’s assistant. “We were only committed to two years here,” he remembers. But the minimal traffic, agreeable climate and low cost of living made them give this place a more serious look. “We never left and have had a wonderful experience raising our two daughters here.”

He began his journey in the nonprofit sector back in Connecticut. He was freshly out of college and quickly became hooked by the field’s intrinsic rewards. “I still can’t believe I get paid to help others,” he passionately says. He served as the Assistant Director of The Greater Hartford Social Club, Inc., a community-based mental health center. When making the move to North Carolina he says he found himself at a professional crossroads. “I made the decision that it was time to go for an executive director position and really make this a career or else I was switching into the corporate world.”

Shortly after that decision he came across a non-descript employment ad in the Winston-Salem Journal for a small organization. That small organization was Senior Services; he went for it, and landed the gig. Thirty-five years and many seasons of life later he is still there serving as President and CEO.

He has remained at the helm as Senior Services has grown from a handful of staff to over 100 implementing one new initiative after another, each created to support our elders “remain at home as long as possible and live with dignity and purpose”.

Today the organization offers seven major programs responding to the needs of Forsyth County’s elderly: the Elizabeth and Tab Williams Adult Day Center, Meals-On-Wheels, Help Line, Home Care, Senior Lunch, Living-at-Home and Elder Care Choices.

Forsyth County’s Meals-On-Wheels program is the oldest in the Southeast and the third oldest in the nation. Volunteers have delivered more than 5,000,000 meals since the program began in 1962. Richard showed me a photograph of the “other Richard” with the last name “Petty” delivering their 50th anniversary meal with the program’s first local volunteer, Helen Pritchard in 2012.

Another photo was of Arnold Palmer delivering the five millionth meal in 2013. “This recipient was a little less enthusiastic. We all have our days.” I certainly know I do.

Over the span of three decades he has learned a great deal about this community and is constantly inspired by the seniors he serves, as well as the thousands of gifted volunteers that make all of their critical programs run. He is also grateful to have the encouragement and support of a board of directors that he calls “the cream of the crop.” When asked he has trouble identifying the hardest lesson he has learned, but the inspiring moments, those are easy and endless.

He admits that it did take him some time early on to really build confidence and have faith in others’ support. Sometimes we become hardwired to look for the shortcomings, but he found that the Winston-Salem community delivered time and time again. He now easily trusts that people of this community “will do, want to do, and can do”.

I was fortunate to meet a few of those people as he walked me around the Senior Services operations facility over on Shorefair Drive. When we stopped in the Meals-on-Wheels distribution area he walked over to a volunteer picking up their delivery cooler to head out on his rounds. The gentleman, a retired RJR employee brightens up when he tells me about the joy he receives from being a regular connection for those special homebound seniors on his route. His gratitude is only matched by that of the staff working in the center as they are quick to tell me “three times a week he volunteers!”

Richard talks to me about the isolation that homebound seniors experience. “Sometimes our volunteers are the only consistent interaction they receive.” We talk of how easily isolation turns to depression and ultimately complete withdrawal from life.

We as human beings all want to be seen and to be valued. He tells me a story of a senior who received a dozen frozen meals all prepared to meet her dietary requirements. “She was on dialysis. She said she set all of the meals out on her kitchen table and just stared at them. She had never had so many choices in her life.” My heart swelled and sank all at once with that visual.

Senior Services’ Williams Day Care Center is one of the top rated in the country. We passed a wall of powerful portraits and he stopped mid-sentence to share a heart-warming story about Ms. E.

Like many of the other patients at the Williams Adult Day Care Center, Ms. E. has alzheimer’s. After Ms. E’s daughter saw the beautiful photograph taken of her mother for Senior Services’ annual report she said, “Look at this beautiful picture, Momma. Do you know who that is?”

Ms. E. studied the photo for a while and then finally replied, “I don’t know who it is, but whoever she is, she has my hat on!

We walked through the rows of staff cubicles with friendly faces under the headers like Senior Lunch and Elder Choices. Richard tells me about their senior lunch program which provides seniors a chance to come together to enjoy a hot meal to nourish the body and socialization for the soul.

Their elder care choices and help line programs provide seniors and their caregivers with a comprehensive resource to answer a wide range of questions from home care services to legal options. I personally watched my own mother and grandfather try to navigate a confusing world of long-term care choices for my grandmother when her health took a near-fatal turn earlier this year. It was an emotional and scary time; I think of how comforting one phone call would have been for them.

Each program is marked in their offices by boards chronicling progress and needs.

“Wow, there really are a lot of logistics to manage here, Richard. Far cry from the beginning huh?,” I say with much respect. He humbly agrees but quickly wants to show me more.

If you haven’t noticed yet, Richard really doesn’t want to talk about himself. For him it really is about continuing to get the message out about their programs and seniors in need. And for him, there is always more work to be done.

“How do you get moving and stay focused each day?” I ask. “I take an hour for myself each morning, drink three cups of coffee, then spend 35 minutes doing laps in the pool.” He firmly believes that his swims are hugely important; he clears his head in the pool and he always leaves with his most creative ideas.

He is rolling out their latest initiative this month, Music and Memory. “You need to watch Alive Inside on Netflix,” he tells me. This documentary is the inspiration for the program. Watch a snippet here to get a feel for yourself.

Music and Memory connects seniors suffering from memory loss with ipods containing their own custom playlist filled with memorable songs from their past. Like a magic drug, the music has brought the most withdrawn elders back to life as they reconnect with a part of their own story they thought they had lost. As the documentary shares, there are over a million Americans in nursing homes losing their connection to life. The Music and Memory program provides a chance to awaken people back to who they are; music connects us all and has the ability to awaken more parts of the brain than anything else.

He wanted me to experience the impact for myself and invited me to their press conference. “You’re press right?” he says with a big smile. “Sure why not,” I laugh.

There, I felt a little out of place with the camera crews and reporters – me with my little blog.

I observed it all quietly from the side until one of the day center attendees picked me out of the crowd and asked me to come talk to him. I was grateful.

His name is Bobby; he is my new buddy. Bobby had questions about my camera; a photographer himself he had a lot of stories to share. We talked about his playlist filled with the likes of Louis Armstrong and Joe Turner. “You know back in the day, back in the Bronx, I saw these guys live. Only $3.66” he remembers. A caregiver listens on with a smile as she works on his crosswords puzzle. “She’s my brains.” he jokes.

I look around the room from my seat beside Bobby and saw how the headphones were transforming others. There were booming voices singing off-key with joy, hands clapping and peaceful humming with closed eyes. In the main room I watched as a group joined together to sing around the piano. I even found myself singing. Music does connect us all, and as Richard continued to reiterate, that connection is what we as human beings all need.

I scan the room looking for Richard remembering that it is him who this story is supposed to be about. I catch him in the corner observing and smiling. He then takes a quick moment to speak to a film crew to help tell the story of others and ask for ipod donations to make this program possible here locally. They need more donated ipods to give the gift of music and memories to more folks.

I sneak a picture knowing in my heart that to successfully profile Richard you must spread the message of the people he is most passionate about. And it is not enough to simply spread the word; it is important to personally dig into this community as a Townie and act. Because together we too can change lives.

And with that I hope that you will join me in donating new or used ipod music players to Senior Services’ Williams Adult Daycare Center by calling 336-724-2155.

If you are planning to attend our FREE outdoor community yoga event next Tuesday, September 22nd we encourage you to bring ipods or itunes giftcards to donate to the Music and Memories program. We will be collecting donations at the TowniesWS table. Each donated music player equals one awakened life.  ~Andrea 

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