Saints Alive!

By staff December 1, 2001

At the Sarasota Senior Friendship Center's health clinic, Dr. Albert Resnick and nurse Barbara Stuart are scurrying in and out of exam rooms, trying to keep up with all the patients filling up the waiting room. In many ways their hectic day is no different than that of any doctor and nurse with a practice full of aging and indigent patients suffering from hypertension, diabetes, arthritis, high cholesterol, obesity and sometimes more serious problems like cancer.

There is one big difference, however. After more than a decade of service at the Senior Friendship Center, Resnick and Stuart have yet to receive a paycheck. Like all the 30 nurses, 52 doctors and 30 secretaries at the Senior Friendship Center, they are retired volunteers.

Resnick, one of the Senior Friendship Center's medical directors, is a slight man with wispy white hair and a big smile that helps soften his no-nonsense advice to patients, especially when it comes to controlling their weight. He and his wife retired to Sarasota in 1988 from Massachusetts, where he had his own private practice in internal medicine. Unlike many of his retired colleagues, Resnick, now 79, had no intention of golfing or boating. "I got rid of my boat and my golf clubs when I moved," he says. But that left a lot of empty hours in the day, hours when, he jokes, he would have driven his wife crazy. Luckily, soon after arriving in Sarasota, he heard about the Senior Friendship Center and began to volunteer.

That was 13 years ago. Since then, he's been a regular at the center, seeing patients at least two days a week and then heading to professional workshops or the library to keep up with what's new in internal medicine. (On his days off, he volunteers at the Sarasota County and Venice health departments.) Resnick pitches in when other volunteer doctors are going on a cruise or just when the staff needs another helping hand. "I'll see as many patients as they give me. I'll do as much as I can," he says.

Stuart, a registered nurse, became a Senior Friendship Center volunteer in 1987. Raised in Sarasota, she was a labor and delivery nurse in a Newark, New Jersey hospital for years after raising her own kids. After her husband died and her mother in Sarasota became ill, she came back to Sarasota to retire. Her mother scolded her, "If you're going to be here, you might as well go down and work in the clinic at the Senior Friendship Center." And Stuart has been there ever since.

A tall, energetic woman with an efficient air and a knack for getting people to relax, Stuart, 73, at first wasn't sure what she could contribute to the Senior Friendship Center. "I didn't know much else beyond labor and delivery," she says, "and there's not much of a call for that here."

Eventually, Stuart and Resnick began working together as a team. Their patients are often on the edge of catastrophe, they say-many have lost almost everybody they love along with much of their income. When their health begins to fail, they're lonely and terrified. Stuart and Resnick say the Senior Friendship Center allows them to help such patients without the obligations of running a major practice. They can spend more time with their patients here. "And we don't have to send out any bills," Resnick adds.

"I look forward to coming here," says Stuart. "And it keeps me off the streets."-Susan Burns

Ira Barsky wasn't always an animal lover. In fact, it wasn't until he married his wife Lee in the 1960s that he had his first pet-a Siamese cat named Herky. "I fell in love," he says, and they've never been without a Siamese cat since then.

So 13 years ago, when he retired from his large minerals and metals business and moved to Sarasota, he began to volunteer at the Humane Society of Sarasota County. Like so many on the front lines of animal welfare, first he got sad, then he got angry and finally he asked, "What else can I do?" Barsky chaired a committee that raised $850,000 to build a new shelter for the Humane Society. He's proud of the new facility, but that wasn't enough for him. More than 6,000 animals were still being euthanized every year in Sarasota.

Then, in 1999, he heard about a national movement to establish no-kill counties, where adoptable cats and dogs wouldn't be euthanized. That's the ticket, he thought; and he called his friend, Sarasota businessman Ed Sarby, with the idea. "I told him I wanted in," says Sarby-the proud owner of an African gray parrot, a Siamese cat and a miniature poodle-and The Animal Rescue Coalition (ARC) was born.

ARC has brought together 10 different-and sometimes competing-animal welfare organizations in the county, including Sarasota County Animal Services. Though coalitions can be tricky, with all the different agendas and egos involved, Barsky says it wasn't hard to get these groups together: "The people who work in this field don't want to kill."

The two men researched and visited other areas that had established no-kill areas or were in the process of doing so-places like San Francisco, Austin, Palm Beach and the whole state of Utah. An accountant and an attorney, Barsky brought financial and legal acumen to the table along with his passion for animals.

Today, ARC has raised money to start an aggressive spay/neuter program with a special van that will carry a vet and assistants around the county to spay and neuter pets at little or no cost. Expect to see the van soon in shopping mall parking lots. "If we're successful with this, the county will save money," says Barsky. "Processing an animal through Animal Control costs $400. To spay and neuter an animal is $66."

ARC has also proposed county legislation to guarantee that older Sarasotans can't be prevented from having a pet in an apartment or senior living facility. For many seniors, a pet is their last family member. It's all that alleviates the loneliness. "There are proven health benefits," Sarby says. "Blood pressure goes down, cholesterol goes down, heart attacks decrease."

And ARC is trying to find homes for every adoptable animal that finds its way into a shelter. The overall goal is to stop the killing in three to five years.

"Animals are my favorite charity," says Barsky, who recently adopted an unwanted kitty that found its way to his door. "I'd like to make people love all animals, to have empathy for all the stray cats and stray dogs."-Susan Burns

In 1998, Charley Richards, a former Sarasota County Commissioner and retired division manager for FPL, was in the beginning stages of establishing a non-profit organization that would help find better housing for developmentally disabled adults. The impetus was his own adult son Tim, who had suffered brain damage from seizures when he was a toddler. Then, a tragic accident took the lives of both his wife and son. Richards could have ended his quest right there. But he didn't.

Richards founded the Coalition to Assist Supported Living, Inc. (CASL) as an alternative to the bleak institutional settings or crowded group homes where many of the retarded or those with cerebral palsy, autism and spina bifida live. For these people, home means sharing too few bedrooms and bathrooms in a place where there is no privacy and no incentive to become more independent. Others live with aging parents who can no longer take care of them.

"I just kept thinking about it," Richards says. "I thought, 'Hell, I'll go into real estate again and raise money and buy houses and lease them to clients.'"

And that's exactly what he-and his group-have done. Today CASL has 21 homes in Sarasota County with no more than three residents in each one. CASL buys single-family homes and condos and rents them to developmentally disabled people at nearly half the cost of rent in most group homes. (Caretakers and other services that some of these adults need are provided through other community agencies; Richards' group just focuses on providing the housing.) CASL relies on monetary donations and furniture donations for its residents. "These people can live in them as long as they'd like-we will never throw them out or sell the house from under them," Richards says.

CASL homes make a tremendous difference in the lives of the residents. Not only do they save money; they have more freedom and flexibility than in group homes and many, says Richards, "become independent for the first time in their lives."

Richards describes a woman who had $40 a month left after paying her room and board in a nursing home. He took her to a CASL home and asked her if she'd like to live there, and she said she might. He took her inside for a tour and asked her to choose one of the three bedrooms.

"She chose a room and then asked me who else would live there, and I told her there would be two other people in the house," he says. "She just kept shaking her head and repeating the question, and I realized what she meant. She wondered how many people would live in her bedroom."

Richards explained to the woman that she would have a private room and could decorate it however she liked. He showed her where she might put her bed.

"She looked a little sad and confused and told me, 'I don't have a bed,'" Richards says. "I told her I would help her get one and she couldn't stop smiling."

Laughing, Richards recalls telling her she could even watch television in her room, and she let him know she didn't have one. "She grinned at me and asked if I'd help her get a television, too," Richards says. "We did, and she has lived in that CASL home for three years and is just as happy as a bug in a rug."-Debi Springer

What a sight it must be for someone approaching the docks at the Sarasota Sailing Squadron when a group of Sailing Alternatives members are out on the water-wheelchairs and prosthetic legs line the docks. John Jorgensen, vice president of Sailing Alternatives, likes to show off a photograph of that scene, with a caption that reads "Gone sailing."

Jorgensen's son, Serge, started Sailing Alternatives in 1993, when Rehab Institute of Sarasota asked him to add sailing to its occupational therapy program. Serge, 29, had been coaching the Venice High School racing team, and he asked his father, another expert sailor, to help.

John, 55, had retired from the National Security Agency and was starting another business-which he says with a smile is now really just a source of funds for Sailing Alternatives. The non-profit organization offers basic and advanced racing and specialized sailing instruction to both able-bodied and disabled adults and children using U.S. Sailing Association and American Red Cross-certified instructors. The group's disabled students have ranged from those with learning problems to those with quadriplegia, polio, deafness, blindness and other handicaps.

Serge says he takes particular delight in seeing a disabled sailor compete-and win-against able-bodied sailors.

"When they see a disabled person get their boat rigged and jump in to go race, you can tell they're thinking, 'This person will be easy to beat,' and when that doesn't happen they're surprised," he says.

Sailing Alternatives has become so successful that the Jorgensens coach the U.S. Paralympic Yachting Teams that have won bronze medals in the last two Paralympics, which, John emphasizes, is the second largest sporting event in the world behind the Olympics.

John Jorgensen understands the challenges facing the disabled. His mother had a childhood disease that caused her leg to become severely disfigured and to lock at the knee. Daily living was extremely difficult for her. He says he has often wondered what her life may have been like if she had been given the opportunity to sail.

That's because he's seen how sailing has affected the 1,000 people who have gone through his program-including the eight-year-old blind boy who rejoices that he can actually sail alone. Instructors ride alongside in a separate boat, telling him which direction to tack to avoid obstacles and make the best use of the wind.

Edie Dungan, 63, a registered nurse who suffered a stroke in 1995 that paralyzed the right side of her body, now sails using only her left hand. "I just don't say, 'I can't,' anymore," says Dungan. "I decide where I will sail, and how far to go; I am not hesitant or unsure, and I know that freedom is possible on the water."

Such freedom means everything to the disabled, who often need constant care. John remembers D.J., a 24-year-old with terminal brain cancer, whose years of radiation therapy had caused him to suffer small strokes, robbing him of much of his eyesight, mobility and speech. On the water, though, D.J. could sail by himself. Once, as John watched him land at the dock, he saw that D.J. was crying. When John asked what was wrong, the young man explained those were tears of happiness. "This is the only time I'm ever able to be by myself," he said.

"These things we take for granted," says John, "are small miracles for them."

-Debi Springer

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