A Youthful Cornerstone of the Community
By NICK WALDEN / Rohnert Park Correspondent
At just 26, Jessica Schieberl has made a name for herself as an advocate for the elderly. “I have always felt that seniors don’t get as much attention as they should,” she says.
After running Petaluma’s Senior Center, she turned her attention to the Rohnert Park Senior Center three years ago. It was floundering, having been without a director for six months. Programs were limited, membership was low, the facility was run down, and the program was hemorrhaging money.
Working first as a technical advisor and then, in 2011, as a full-time city employee, Schieberl has done her best to re-invent the center. Under her leadership, membership and revenue have increased. New programs have been added, and by working with local businesses and groups, Schieberl has been able to renovate parts of the facility.
“If you tell me I can’t do something, you can bet that it will just make me work harder to do it,” she said.
Making the center a hub of local activity led to the full-time job. “That is one of my greatest accomplishments, to earn that position,” said Schieberl.
Her community service started back when she was 15 and working as a lifeguard in Santa Rosa.
“I used to want to be a paramedic or a nurse,” she said. “But after volunteering and shadowing people for a few weeks, I started to get sad. I am a very happy person, and for me it is better to be giving and help people in a happy environment.”
That enthusiasm took her from lifeguarding to an off-season job working with kids in an afterschool program. From there she joined the City of Petaluma’s recreation department and helped run the Senior Center.
When she took the part-time Rohnert Park job in 2009, she noticed that the city had numerous programs geared towards youth, but not nearly enough for the senior community, so she rolled up her sleeves and got to work.
Now just over a year after she stepped into the Community Service Specialist’s job, the center is in a better position that it has ever been. The membership has grown from 200 in its first year to over 500 today. Senior programs are offered five days a week, and space within the center is rented for classes seven days a week.
“What she brings more than anything is youth and energy,” says Guy Miller, community services manager for Rohnert Park. “She is really active and a go-getter who is involved with lots of local clubs. She also relates very well with the seniors, where other people her age might not be as comfortable or outgoing. Really she is the perfect person for that position.”
Her hard work has also paid off in other ways. “I think I have about 18 or 19 grandparents now with all of the people who have adopted me,” Schieberl says. “Giving back…it’s my passion. It’s service above self, just like the Rotary Club saying.”
Schieberl is an active member of the Rohnert Park Rotary Club, traveling and helping with local projects such as the recent toy drive. For her dedication she has been identified as the 2014-2015 Rotary Club president.
She also just reached another personal goal, purchasing her first home with her fiancé last year.
John McArthur, Rohnert Park’s director of public works and community services, has called Schieberl’s position “the hardest job in the city.” While admitting that it can be difficult at times, she focuses on staying patient and listening to concerns as a way to make a difference in her clients’ lives.
“Some people might think (their) issues are petty or insignificant, but to them they can be a big deal,” she said.
The center’s monthly luncheons have taken on the role of community events rather than just being simple meals, for example. Opening the Thanksgiving and Christmas meals to serve up to 120 people rather than the more modest number they typically serve encouraged community involvement. Members of the Rotary Club, city employees, and students from Sonoma State University volunteered time to help serve food, entertain and interact with the seniors.
“The idea is to get the whole community involved in events and mix things up a little bit,” said Schieberl. “Just because it is a Senior Center doesn’t mean it has to be only seniors here.”
Things like monthly luncheons and the upcoming Spring Craft Fair (April 6 at the Burton Avenue Recreation Center) provide more opportunities for the entire community to get behind. Schieberl hopes the Spring Craft Fair can become a signature event for the Senior Center, raising money while also fostering a connection within the community.
Each week the center also provides a wealth of regular programs that cover a wide range of ages, interests and abilities. Participants can work in the computer lab, take art classes, learn line dancing, practice Tai Chi, do some Zumba, enjoy day trips or hang out with the Fun After 50 Club.
The support of local businesses, volunteers and organizations make it all possible, connections Schieberl is responsible for fostering and for which she was recognized in November with a “Making it Personal” award from Home Instead Senior Care.
“Really I just try and take every opportunity to give back,” she said. “I love what I do. My favorite part of this job is being part of the community and seeing all the happiness and joy.”