By CHRISTIAN WHITTLE
NEWS-PRESS STAFF WRITER
When Kristen Bowe’s mother-in-law had a stroke that left her with severe memory and cognitive issues, Mrs. Bowe needed help caring for her. Her husband had his own injuries and work, and with two kids in the house, Mrs. Bowe became overwhelmed seeing to the needs of her family. Acting as mother, caregiver, and therapist was emotionally and physically draining, but fortunately Mrs. Bowe found help at the Friendship Center.
“Caregiving is the hardest job on the face of the planet and there are so many people who are caregivers that don’t realize they are. We all suffer the same types of things even though everybody’s stories are so different, everybody’s needs are so different. We all go through those basic human issues of making sure that we take care of ourselves so that we can take care of other people,” said Mrs. Bowe. “Resources for supporting caregivers like the Friendship Center offers is huge.”
Friendship Center is an nonprofit adult day center primarily for adults with cognitive impairments, such as dementia, Alzheimers, parkinsons, and stroke victims, as well as ones with developmental disabilities and physical impairments.
Since 1976, Friendship Center has offered those adults a place for care in an environment that is more community oriented than clinical. The Center’s programs are designed to help seniors stay in their homes with their families as long as possible, and it provides much needed support for caregivers, giving them a chance to share the work and have more time and less stress.
“It gives you the respite,” said Sheri Bolea.
Her mother is a member of the Friendship Center, and knowing that she can see friends, get meals, and have a good time while Mrs. Bolea can take care of every day work has been enormously helpful.
“(Friendship Center) is a totally beautiful place. I love it. It’s a godsend!” said Mrs. Bolea.
On Saturday, Mrs. Bolea and Mrs. Bowe were guests at the Friendship Center’s 21st annual Festival of Hearts, its biggest fundraiser of the year.
Some 150 guests, Friendship Center board members, and caregivers gathered at the Hilton Santa Barbara Beachfront Resort for a day of music, lunch, raffles, and of course, the silent auction featuring 36 paper mache hearts decorated by artists from around town.
Every year around Christmas, the Center sends out paper mache hearts to artists, caregivers, neighbors, and a few celebrities. This year, Jeff Bridges submitted a heart, as he usually does. At the gala, guests perused and bid on hearts with intricate paintings, wild and feathery decorations, and a rainbow of color.
“I have my personal criteria,” said Sharon Morrow, the “Heart Wrangler” responsible for organizing and preparing the hearts, “One of them is: you’ve got to be able to throw the heart against a wall and it doesn’t break apart. You have to be good at gluing!”
The proceeds went towards the Help Elders at Risk Today (or HEART) program, allowing services to remain available to all in need, regardless of income limitations.
Mrs. Bowe, who shared her testimony at the event, said the HEART stipends have been extremely helpful over the years, and that the Festival of Hearts is a critical of keeping the Center affordable for all in need.
The festival has become a tradition in town as some of the artists and guests have been making and collecting the hearts over two decades. Kat Foote, who has made her 20th heart this year, said she started doing them after seeing the first festival and thinking, “I could do that!”
“I do it because it benefits the Friendship Center, and I so respect it. I worked as a nurse in gerontology and geropsychiatry, so I really understand how difficult it is for the families and for the caretakers who work there. I think anything I can do for them, even as minor as a heart that might go for a hundred dollars, is something,” said Ms. Foote.
“It’s a really important charity. The people are so loving and so caring, and they treat everybody as an individual because every single member has different challenges,” said Gerrie Shapiro, whose father Jason is the oldest Friendship Center member at 99.
“People don’t understand there are four types of people in this world: people who need a caregiver, people who are caregivers, people who will need a caregiver, and people who will be a caregiver,” she told the News-Press.
In life, people often don’t consider getting involved with organizations like Friendship Center until they are older and have health issues or their loved ones need care, said Ms. Shapiro. She encouraged younger members of the community to start making those connections now.
“They always like new faces. People that have Alzheimer’s disease and the elederly are invisible to a lot of people. Just going over to somebody and sitting down and holding their hand and talking to them, whether they understand what you’re saying or not, it doesn’t matter. It’s just the eye to eye contact,” said Ms. Shapiro. “It’s just giving your time. Being kind to somebody.”
This year’s Festival of Hearts theme was “The New Roaring 20s.” Guests sipped Fess Parker Wine wearing snappy suits and dazzling flapper dresses. The theme fits with what is happening internally at Friendship Center, said Kathryn Cherkas, program manager at the center.
“We have a new vision, a new mission. We have three very strong focus areas of relevant and responsive programs, staff training and development, and a really enhanced marketing and outreach plan,” she told the News-Press. “We are changing some of the roles within the organization, and kind of rebuilding ourselves.”
For more information on the Friendship Center or opportunities to volunteer, visit friendshipcentersb.org.