By Bob Carter
I started working at the Senior Friendship Centers at age 39. Now at 66, I understand the ongoing journey of aging a bit more each day. Brother William Geenen, the founder of the centers, was my first mentor on this journey, and my ongoing inspiration. Brother Geenen early on understood the social and support needs of older adults and the importance of aging with dignity.
I spent my first full day with Brother Geenen in 1988. He took me to see the concrete slab foundations of the soon-to-be-built Venice Friendship Center campus. He reflected on creating the Friendship Centers in 1973 with just $79 in his personal checking account. With a twinkle in his eye, he said, “With $79 you can’t make big mistakes, but with $79 and a lot of good people, you can accomplish wonderful things.”
I was always touched by Brother Geenen’s humility, and delighted by his sharp wit. Initially, it was a challenge being a Catholic Brother attempting to create a nondenominational organization. Still, many people wanted to help and offered to donate everything from artwork to money. A woman called to offer a table to the first drop-in center, but added that she was a Presbyterian and wanted to make sure he could accept the donation. He replied they would happily receive a “Presbyterian table.” Once, when he was asked how wonderful it must feel to have a street named him (Brother Geenen Way, named in 1994) while he was still alive, he replied that he was honored, but added, again with that twinkle, “It’s a very short street.”
Brother Geenen’s genius was that he understood volunteering helps the volunteer as much—or even more—than the person who receives the service. Volunteering adds meaning and value to people’s lives. It proved to be the foundation of our service model that today still has volunteers outnumbering paid staff eight to one. People helping people is at the heart of what we do.
Brother Geenen passed away in 2011, but I still reflect on my precious time with him. The Friendship Centers he envisioned and created have made life better for generations of seniors—and for all of Sarasota.
Bob Carter is the president and CEO of Senior Friendship Centers.