Santaniello Gets AARP’s Most Prestigious Award

Published in Pawtucket Times, December 6, 2013

Look for hundreds of AARP members to gather today at this year’s Andrus Awards noon luncheon at the West Valley Inn, in West Warwick, to recognize their own, at the aging group’s annual Andrus Awards ceremony.

Norma Santaniello, 81, gets the Rhode Island AARP Chapter’s most prestigious volunteer award for age 50 and older volunteers, that is the 2013 AARP Rhode Island Andrus Award for Community Service. It’s the aging advocacy groups most visible state volunteer award for community service

“This award acts as a symbol to the public that we can all work together for positive social change,” states . “AARP has long valued the spirit of volunteerism and the important contributions volunteers make to their communities, neighbors, and the programs they serve.”

Connell says the North Providence resident has worked with the nonprofit’s chapters and community partners, reinforcing the organization’s strategic priorities and being a voice to the public. “She is a strong advocate for community service and works with the volunteers on projects such as the RI Community Food Bank and at various health and fitness fairs.”

Santaniello follows a very distinguished group of award recipients. Previous Andrus Award winners are Sarah Gauvin, Virginia Tierney, Anna Prior, Ann Gardella, Melvoid Benson, John O’Hara, Rita Wood, Ed Drew, Richard Ryan, Jorge Cardenas and Catherine Graziano

The December 6 Andrus Awards Luncheon is very festive and upbeat regardless of “what is going wrong in the world or otherwise leaving us feeling unsettled,” says Connell, noting that she looks forward to attending this annual event because “it is a time to acknowledge volunteerism and public service on many levels.

AARP Rhode Island’s Andrus Awards Luncheon allows the organization to recognize people for their community service throughout the year. “It is indeed an honor to know each and every one present, along with many who are absent,” notes Connell, stressing that they represent an “even greater network of volunteers and advocates who carry on Ethel Percy Andrus’s dream of a productive and fulfilling life for people whose knowledge, passion and energy remains indispensable in our neighborhoods and in towns and cities all across our great state.”

AARP Award Recognizes Ethel Percy Andrus’s Advocacy

According to Connell, her group’s top award is given to recognize and honor AARP founder Ethel Percy Andrus, she “embodies all that AARP stands for. Once Andrus retired in 1944 from her position as Los Angeles high school principal in 1944, she stepped into a new career, one that ultimately would have a major impact on the nation. “She became an activist and organizer on behalf of other retirees and older Americans, fighting to improve their financial security, their health care and other services that they need, says AARP Rhode Island’s State Director.

The former long-time educator, who served as the first woman high school principal in California, never married and was childless, had retired so that she could care for her mother, who was in poor health. Despite decades of working, Andrus was entitled to a pension of just $60 a month, around $750 in today’s dollars. She had enough money to financially survive, but she realized that many of her older colleagues were not so fortunate, living off incredibly small pensions.

For Andrus, her commitment to become a change agent for society was fueled by learning the indignity faced by a former colleague due to lack of retirement income was forced to live in a chicken coop in a small town outside Los Angeles. This led to Andrus to become active in the California Retired Teachers Association and in 1947 she founded the National Retired Teachers Association. This group would ultimately lead to the creation of AARP in 1958, now considered the nation’s largest aging advocacy group.

Connell notes that Andrus worked to shift the nation’s perception of aging. As she once explained, “Old age is not a defeat, but a victory, not a punishment, but a privilege.” The aging advocate urged her fellow retirees “to be as active as possible — to pursue new passions, to travel and see the world, and, most of all, to continue to use the skills and experience developed over a lifetime to serve their communities.”

The Ojai, California resident continued to work long hours and travel to promote AARP until her death from a heart attack at age 83 in 1967, the same year that membership in AARP reached 1 million. Today, AARP’s membership serves over 40 million older people.

Like the AARP Rhode Island Chapter, recipients across the nation are to receive the distinguished award, named for Andrus, recognizing their ability to enhance the lives of AARP members and prospective members, improve their community or for which the work was performed, and the inspiration they give other volunteers.

Empowering Seniors

For 29 years, juggling a demanding job that provided administrative support for Providence School Principals combined with raising two young children left Santaniello with little time after hours to join community organizations. One year shy of age 60, she would take retirement, noting that “I had worked long enough, had a pension, and just wanted to do different things.”

Santaniello remembers her volunteer work began when she was invited to join the State Legislative Committee some 18 years ago. The retired Providence School Department employee, joined the AARP North Providence Chapter taking the helm of its Legislative Committee, ultimately being appointed to AARP Rhode Island’s State Legislative Committee. In these positions she has written numerous letters to Congressional lawmakers on aging advocacy issues and has testified many times on Smith Hill before the General Assembly on a multitude of aging issues, including care giver issues, long-term care, Social Security, and fair market pricing for prescription drugs.

As the years rolled by, Santaniello would continue to put her energy into her AARP duties. But, she also would find time to teach fifth graders about religion at her local parish, the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in North Providence, serve as a board member for Marieville’s Community Police program and to even became certified to be on FEMA’s Emergency Response Team in the Ocean State. That’s not all.

Santaniello is actively involved in the Department of Elderly Affairs’ Senior Help Insurance program, assisting seniors to get the best insurance plan for their specific needs. “Right now I am very concerned about United Health Care dropping physicians,” she says.

Besides receiving the Andrus Award, Santaniello notes she has also accumulated a few others over the years. She received the AARP Rhode Island’s Outstanding Team member Award in both 2000 and 2004 and the nonprofit group’s Life Time Chapter Education Award in 2010.

With today’s luncheon ceremony in her thoughts, Santaniello admits, “it’s quite an honor, getting the highest award that AARP can bestow.” She seems amazed that one should get this award for just doing something you like. “Obviously, if I did not enjoy what I was doing I would not have been around so long,” she says.

As to staying active in her early eighties, Santaniello hopes that her older friends will find volunteer activities that are worthwhile to invest their time and energy. “We just have to know what is going [in the world] or we will fade away, she said.

Like Santaniello, older Rhode Islanders might consider following her very active life style. Become a volunteer in your community. According to the Washington, DC-based Corporation for National & Community Service, a growing body of research details that older volunteers have lower mortality rates, less depression, fewer physical limitations and higher levels of well-being. Older volunteer’s can tackle community problems, making the world a better place for their children and grandchildren. Being a volunteer might just well be your fountain of youth.

At today’s Andrus Awards noon luncheon, here are other AARP members who will be recognized for the 2013 Volunteer Leader of the Year: Advocacy; Doris Haskins (Advocacy): Julia Valles (Community Presence); Lourdes Pichardo (Maria Matias Award); Susan Sweet (Advocacy Education); and Jorge Cardenas (Volunteer Engagement).

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

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