By Caroline Abkar, REALTOR® | 4/25/2018
Simona Valanciute, President & CEO of San Diego Oasis, is passionate about making life fantastic for San Diego’s adults 50+ who want to keep thriving through intellectual, social and physical stimulation for many more years and beyond retirement. As I stare into Simona Valanciute’ big blue eyes, I see nothing but empathy, compassion and a sincere desire to tap into the under-appreciated potential of older adults and help change society’s stereotypical views of the senior years as “a time of inevitable disease and feebleness”. Simona’s role reminds her deeply of her own relationship with her grandmother who inspired her growing up. Simona is fueled by a vision and desire to constantly improve Oasis and, to be quite honest, I left our interview thinking…I just may have found my oasis to keep growing and learning in the day I hit 50.
Caroline Abkar: Simona, can you tell us what San Diego Oasis has to offer?
Simona Valanciute: Please allow me to backtrack a little to give you the full story. When Marylen Mann founded Oasis thirty-five years ago, it was with a vision to change the stereotype associated with older adults playing bingo and having no place to thrive. As an educator and curriculum developer in St Louis, Mann started thinking about her retirement and realized there was no dedicated space for the older population for continued education in all aspects of life: intellectual, physical, and social. Mann toured various senior centers and to her dismay, saw one dilapidated facility after the next. Her biggest opportunity came from Mr and Mrs May (May Company) who offered Mann free space and funding for operating the programs Mann had in mind. Over 25 years, she developed Oasis’ curriculum, paired seniors with kids, and implemented all kinds of successful programs using her intuition.
To this day, the largest gerontology study in the world about successful aging, with the most elite universities participating in the study, followed 10,000 older adults over 10 years to answer the question, ‘What makes some people age more successfully than others?’ The 3 findings in the conclusion were: Mental stimulation, Active body, and Social interactions.
Ms Mann’s intuition and Oasis’ mission had just gotten validated by the most comprehensive study on successful aging.
Fast forward 30 years, Macy’s inherited Oasis, and in recent years the retail industry began to struggle and that’s where I came in. With San Diego being the largest Oasis chapter in the nation and this legacy to uphold, I was blessed and challenged at the opportunity to help Oasis keep fulfilling its mission to provide quality programs and classes for older adults in San Diego and nationwide yet get away from the donated department store space since the clock was ticking and we needed to relocate.
Today, Oasis is a national, non-profit educational organization that promotes healthy aging by providing adults 50 and over with lifelong learning, healthy living and inter-generational opportunities.
Caroline Abkar: You are a long-time Bay Park resident with a soft spot for helping San Diego’s mature population. Can you tell us a bit about your journey that led you to become San Diego Oasis’ President & CEO?
Simona Valanciute: My soft spot for older adults comes from my relationship with my grandma. She was loving, inspirational, and a strong and independent woman until passing away at the age of 90. I was raised by her half the time as a young child since my mom traveled for work. We baked, cooked, lived and did homework together. She was just such a big part of my life.
I enjoyed a long career with The San Diego Foundation (TSDF) for thirteen years where I had the priviledge to serve as charitable advisor to many families and organizations in San Diego. TSDF developed funding and strategy with many working groups (science, environment, arts, etc), yet the aging area has not been a priority until very recently.
In 2012, Oasis’ headquarters was looking for a new leadership to merge the two independent local San Diego Oasis chapters – Escondido and Mission Valley – into one regional organization. As a philanthropy professional who has seen so many overlapping non-profit services competing for limited charitable funds and yet never merging for growth, I saw this as a very rare opportunity to put my MBA to use and truly live out my passion for helping seniors. Nonprofit mergers are difficult, and this one was no exception. Looking back, it was the best thing for Oasis, making us a very old start-up after the transition and positioning us for growth and expansion. We are proud of our newest Lifelong Learning and Wellness Centers at the Grossmont Center in La Mesa.
At this point in the interview, a lovely lady by the name of Judy Lewis passes by. She is an Oasis regular who has taken more than 800 classes so far. We meet and she tells me, ‘I feel like a kid at a candy store when I get the latest Oasis catalog. People want to learn. There is so much camaraderie here. I just came out of a kickboxing class and feel awesome!’
Simona then turns to me and says, “Judy is one of our board members and is the poster child. She helps drive our programming with new topics. We want to reinforce the idea that we’re putting these things on for curious adults, not just older adults. By the way, Judy has a PhD from Stanford and was a Professor of Psychology at San Diego State. People like Judy will not sit and watch TV at home for 30 years.
We like to think that Oasis just happens to be for older adults but there’s nothing about it that’s “tailored” for older adults. Some people approach me and say hey I’m 48 can I please attend?”
Caroline Abkar: How is Oasis different from other organizations that help older adults?
Simona Valanciute: While many organizations are devoted to helping older adults meet their basic needs—certainly an essential service to society— few exist to serve the vast majority of older adults who are in the time of life where they have the energy, resources, and health to allow them to make contributions to the common good.
San Diego Oasis is that proven, evidence-based network and structure to engage these vital older adults—and help them stay intellectually, physically, and socially engaged for years to come.
Caroline Abkar: What are your most popular programs at San Diego Oasis and associated fees?
Simona Valanciute: The philosophy lectures with Peter Bolland always enroll more than 100 participants; foreign language arts, technology writing, and film workshops have strong following as well. We have a dancing group at Escondido who perform at the County Fair. A couple even got married from that group! Our Wellness Center offers 47 types of classes including Zumba, Kickboxing, Meditation, Pilates, Aerobics, Ballet, Bone Building, and so many more.
Oasis also offers inter-generational workshops (ages 8+) to facilitate wonderful memories for grandparents and grandchildren.
We also put have an evidence-base, award winning Tutoring Program where we pair interested participants with Title-1 school students who need individual attention in order to catch up with grade level reading and writing by grade 4 We have partnered with 104 schools all over San Diego; and all our volunteers are fully trained to support common core standards. It’s wonderful for the kids and members alike.
We have a very flexible model and we try to keep the fees extremely low. Children of older adults will encourage and even pay for the courses because it increases the quality of life of their loved ones. Our intent is to have even more champions and donors to help fund our programs. It’s about having fun, making friends, learning something new, and having lunch together.
Caroline Abkar: As a Bay Park resident of many years, what do you think of our neighborhood?
Simona Valanciute: I love it. I get to walk to the two most important places with our 7 year old: Our elementary school and Western Hills Park. I have the best neighbors in the world. Across the street lives our Mexican grandma who is 90 (we adopted each other informally). Her artist husband did the mosaics for the church on Denver on the other side of Clairemont Dr. Our neighbors are wonderful and giving people, like Bay Park resident Michael Rander, for example. He has volunteered numerous times as a photographer at Oasis, including for our Grand Opening last year. I love the diverse neighborhood and our demographics is awesome. It’s like having the best of everything, with established residents, new residents, working parents, retired adults, young families.
Caroline Abkar: Where do your members come from? How can we reach more of Bay Park’s seniors?
Simona Valanciute: They come from all over. We serve over 30 zip codes in the county. We have a stack of Oasis catalogs at the Bay Park and Clairemont libraries, as well as Park & Rec centers where we host off-site classes for easier access to those who can’t commute to our main facilities in Grossmont.
A lot of members hear about us through word of mouth. We have used billboards right before our Grand Opening in Grossmont, a celebration attended by 650 people! We try to do more on social media. We would love for our catalogs to have a presence in grocery stores. There are so many adult children with local parents and grandparents who don’t know about us.
It’s worth noting that transitioning from Westfield Mall to Grossmont Shopping Center has been very positive for us and we feel so welcome here. It’s a greatly managed mall with excellent free parking, it’s central, close to the freeway, and easy access to public transportation.
Caroline Abkar: What is your hope/vision for the mid-long term future for San Diego Oasis?
Simona Valanciute: Creating a larger network in the county. I would like Oasis to grow in North County, Inland and have new centers in North County Coastal, Central and South County regions. I would like for our facilities to be beautiful, invigorating spaces just like the one in Grossmont. Eventually, nothing should stop us from expanding California wide because we know the demand is there. The significant change in demographics is happening no matter what. We are the pioneers and experts in healthy aging. We also want to take Oasis online, for those who don’t have access to Oasis physical locations
We are also planning to expand the Oasis facilities to nights and weekends as a rental or hosting other non-profits or companies – whether for a retreat, team building, strategic planning, or board member meetings.
Our current big project is moving the Escondido facility to a new, largerspace. We know the audience is plentiful in North County coastal and inland regions. If we could find a developer, a property owner or a significant donor who would help bring Oasis programs to a new area, we are ready to expand Oasis’s footprint.
Caroline Abkar: What’s the easiest way to get started with Oasis programs?
Simona Valanciute: Call, online, in person. It can be scary to get started when you’re used to staying home but once you do, you will be so happy!
And my final tip: Make a few younger friends so they can come visit you when you age 🙂
**San Diego Oasis’ Summer Catalog will be available on April 30th.
About the author: Caroline Abkar is a Real Estate professional who loves bringing the community together any way she can, and is absolutely passionate about helping those who place their trust in her. Her blog/website is YourSanDiegoRealty.com, and you can contact her anytime at 619-808-4804 or firstname.lastname@example.org.