18 Years of Service to Seniors in Grand Rapids
“May God bless us so we may bless others.”
Right before a fresh, hot meal is served to participants in The Salvation Army of Fulton Heights Senior Program, Renee Ambriz will lead willing group members through devotions and prayer. She might read a story or share an anecdote on what God has done in her life. Ambriz’s genuine care and passion for others and the Lord are tangible in her spoken word.
This Friday, Ambriz is preparing to retire from her Senior Program director post, a place she’s spent the last 18 years dedicated to using what she has been given to better the lives of nearly 2,000 senior citizens in Grand Rapids and Kent County. And it’s hard not to notice how glowingly others speak of her.
A surprise party was held for her on Monday at the Fulton Heights Community Center with over 100 Senior Program participants in attendance. Even though the party was appropriately named “Grow in Love” – gluing together Ambriz’s hobby of gardening with the ways she has helped so many grow spiritually, emotionally and physically – the common theme tilted more toward the significant impact Ambriz and her staff have had on everyone in the room.
Fulton Heights Corps Officers Auxiliary Captains Mika and Grace Roinila, the fifth set of officers Ambriz has worked alongside, shared not only their memories of Renee but also read notes sent to them from previous officers about the Senior Program. When Ambriz was invited to the podium, she immediately brought up her staff to join her before briefly trying to encapsulate how much the last 18 years have meant to her.
Ambriz (at podium) alongside her staff of (L-R) Sikes, Pastunink and Whitmore.
“Renee has done an outstanding job with the ‘Keenagers’. It’s been her career for 18 years and it shows in the love and care she brings to the many relationships she has built with so many people,” Auxiliary Captains Mika and Grace Roinila said. “We were impressed to see three people at Monday’s event that have been with Renee and the program since she started in 2003. She will be missed, but we are sure that she’ll come back to visit. This is in her blood!”
Ambriz has been a part of the “birthing process” of The Salvation Army Senior Program, housed at the Fulton Heights Community Center on the bustling corner of Fuller and Fulton. In the early 2000s, The Salvation Army used to pack a meal and an activity and visit senior housing facilities. In late 2002, the then-Senior Program director was instructed to establish a program that involved seniors coming to Fulton Heights and its accompanying spacious community room and kitchen. On June 21, 2003, Ambriz – after answering a job ad in the Advance newspaper following a layoff at Steelcase – came aboard. She arrived with about a decade’s worth of hands-on experience working with seniors, having done so at her local church, Saint Mark Lutheran.
One year after starting, Ambriz absorbed the program director role and the vision for the program after her boss retired to attend to a family matter.
Three times a week – Monday, Wednesday and Friday – from 8 a.m. – 2 p.m., Renee and her staff, which includes assistants Kristi Pastunink and Deb Whitmore, cook Y-Vonne Sikes and many volunteers, lead a group of individuals aged 60 and older through exercise, games and worship, before serving a healthy and freshly prepared meal.
Or, to have Ambriz describe what she does: “I serve the senior population of Kent County the best I can as they come in the door. I try to open their availability to opportunities here. Any way we can help them transition from maybe a secluded lifestyle to hopefully making new friends and enjoying exercising and social times again, we will do. It’s about just having fun.”
Ambriz (far left) joining in on a song. (Photo from 2013.)
In the nascent days, Ambriz and her staff would pick up those who wanted to take part, which usually hovered around 10 participants. Just a couple of years went by before the program took off and picking up seniors one-by-one became impractical. Before the statewide stay-at-home order due to the COVID-19 pandemic was issued in March 2020, the Senior Program was welcoming near 80 individuals per day, with some days reaching 100 or more. Now, the program is back up to averaging around 60 members per session.
To everyone internally and some externally, the Senior Program is known as “Keenagers.” Five years into the program – so, late 2000s – a contest was held. About 15 names were submitted by participants and by majority vote, Keenagers was selected.
Exercises offered, some of which involve a separate instructor being brought in, include walking in the gym, Wii bowling, Tai Chi drumming, arthritis-focused movements and everyone’s favorite, “jukebox jive.” Playing cards, board and brain games, and arts and crafts are always available too. Visits from medical professionals at Spectrum Health as well as med students from both Michigan State University and Grand Valley State University are frequent.
At 11 a.m., it’s bingo time. With many participants living on a fixed income, winners at bingo are given tickets, which they can then redeem for food pantry items. Indeed, every activity a participant engages in is worth a ticket. This way, individuals can earn and then pick out exactly what food items they need, as opposed to just being handed a sack of assorted groceries.
Before the pandemic, the Senior Program went on several trips a month – Detroit Tigers games, Turkeyville Dinner Theater, shopping excursions, river cruises and fish fries Up North, to name a few. Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas parties are meticulously planned. And there are other unique events put on by the program, like Grandparents Night, which was held carnival-style on a warm Friday night last month. As Ambriz says, it’s about finding out what each individual enjoys and also striving to meet the suggestions given that are possible.
“She’s extremely caring, she genuinely cares about all the seniors she works with and always goes above and beyond with anything that she does,” Pastunink said. “She’s wonderful as far as the spiritual ministry with them, she does wonderful prayers and devotions and touches a lot of lives that way.”
The Senior Program is supported by the Area Agency on Aging and is on 2-1-1. The relationships are what have helped it grow in numbers, says Ambriz. “It’s not so much what one person does or what five people do, it’s just the connections that people make. We call it ‘friendulism.’ One friend tells another and they just bring each other in. Over the years, I’ve learned what is important. We do surveys all the time and 97% come to socialize.”
The popular and well-attended Senior Program Christmas dinner. (Photo from 2019.)
While that is certainly true, the relationships Renee and her staff have built with seniors need to be accounted for as well.
One anonymously signed handwritten letter from August 2020 cursively penned, “Renee has been a Godsend to the seniors in this community for many years.”
Linda Love, a program participant for the last three years who is coming by about twice a week these days added: “You have to be a special person to be able to work with elderly people and children and she’s that type of person. She knows everybody’s name. She tries to help people get things, like wheelchairs and walkers. She finds out organizations to try to help people get them and she follows through on everything that she says. I love Renee.”
Karen Harshman, a volunteer in the senior program for the last 13 years, emotionally shared: “Renee is the kind of giving person that I would love to be. If she sees a need, she jumps right in and takes care of it. Whether it’s one of our members that have a problem with getting a hold of information from their doctor to communication problems to transportation problems, food problems, spiritual needs, whatever, she just jumps in and is a servant. She truly exemplifies what a servant of Christ should be like. Just working with her has been an honor and I hate to see her go.”
It’s likely safe to say everyone who has come through the doors of the Senior Program has a story or memory of Ambriz and what she’s meant to them.
There are the birthday cards for participants that she coordinates to be signed and delivered in the mail. If a senior is sick, she organizes a ‘get well’ card for others to write a note in.
There are the numerous visits she and her staff have made to Keenagers who are in the hospital.
The list is endless.
“She works so hard. If something needs to be done, she jumps in and makes sure it’s done. She’s been a great example for me and everybody around her,” Harshman said.
“As a director, she doesn’t just sit back and direct staff but works alongside us. She wouldn’t ask us to do something she wouldn’t do herself,” Sikes said. “We have learned a lot from her and admire her passion for her seniors, which can be heard in her prayers and devotions at lunchtime.”
All these stories and we have not yet broached the COVID-19 pandemic and the accompanying stay-at-home order in Michigan that turned the lives of so many people upside down. Even though the ability to physically connect was disrupted – all in-person Senior Program gathering events were shut down, following government rules – but Renee and her staff found meaningful ways to stay engaged with their seniors in safe and effective ways.
There are 500 individuals in the program’s registry. Each one of them received a phone call every single week from Ambriz, Pastunink, Sikes or another staff member. The calls were personal and an opportunity to check-in – do you need anything? What can we help you with?
“I think we got to know them better by talking to them on the phone,” Ambriz said. “Some were short and sweet, and others went on for hours. You yourself know if you get a card in the mail or somebody calls you and says, ‘hey I’m thinking about you,’ what an impact that makes on your life.”
The hot meals many participants counted on were still offered, although in a drive-thru or home delivery format instead. Bingo and other favorite activities were available via a livestream on Zoom.
Ambriz (in blue) and Auxiliary Captain Grace serving food during the pandemic.
“I was amazed at how often Salvation Army called to see if we needed anything,” wrote one unsigned letter from a program participant in August 2020. “My neighbor is a stay at home because of illness and they even brought her groceries. I believe they went out of their way to help us, and they were genuinely interested in our welfare.”
Some of these kind words were shared with Ambriz two weeks before her retirement date and asked what that means to her.
“I can’t put it in words,” she said through welled-up eyes. “It’s what I hope for. It’s what I really wanted to do with this program. I wanted our seniors to know they were valued, that they aren’t just somebody that they get dropped off here, you do your thing and you go home. We didn’t want that. They become family. If somebody’s sick, we send them cards, we go visit. It’s just awesome to think that you made a difference in somebody’s life.”
But Renee makes a point, just like she did during her retirement party, to credit her staff.
“Staff makes a huge difference. Kristi has been with me for 15 years and she’s my right arm. What I can’t do, she does. I’m not techy at all, she did the Powerpoints, the Zooms, all of that. And then with Y-Vonne, she’s an excellent cook, she does what she’s got to do and more. We just got Deb about a year ago and she has been very supportive. It goes a long way when you get along and you all have the same focus.”
As for the future, Renee is looking forward to more time with Ralph, who she has been married to for 46 years, her two sons Russ and Roberto, and her four grandchildren. She plans to stay heavily involved in her church. Oh, and she loves to fish so a fishing boat is in the retirement plans, too.
“That’s kind of my plan, God maybe has others. I’m ready to take it one day at a time and see what happens,” she said.
The mutual positive impact between the Senior Program, its participants, and Renee won’t be retiring anytime soon.
“Renee has been invaluable to this ministry,” Auxiliary Captain Grace said. “She has poured much of herself into this work. The folks who have been under her ministry have grown physically, mentally and spiritually. We are forever grateful to Renee for all that she has come to mean to the Salvation Army and the Keenagers program. As her husband Ralph put it, ‘Well done, good and faithful one.’”