Wendy Stephens, who has kept vigil over the islands’ seniors for decades, is retiring from her position with the county.
The Mullis Center cafeteria housed a dozen tables at its lunch on Jan. 17, each with five to six seniors seated at them. Front and center in the dining room was “table nine” – a reserved space with balloons and cards for Stephens left by staff and clients of the senior center. She also enjoyed a black forest chocolate cake special ordered from a bakery in Bellingham.
“I feel so blessed to have had a profession that I absolutely love,” Stephens said. “I absolutely love the whole social services arena and the seniors in particular as such a wonderful, wonderful population to work for. They’re so endearing, so that’s been extraordinary. At the end of the day, it feels like important work and that’s really gratifying to me.”
Sixty-five-year-old Stephens is retiring on Jan. 23 to travel and spend time with her family. She leaves behind a simple, but powerful message: people matter.
Those two words have motivated Stephens throughout her time working with island seniors. She is a short, spunky woman who greets new people with a hug. Listening to her talk, it doesn’t take long to hear a slight New York accent, the remnants of her youth.
Stephens was born and raised in New York City, and that is where she earned her master’s in social work in the 70s. She and her husband Dylan moved to Issaquah, Washington in 1979.
The couple moved to San Juan Island in 1994 when Stephens accepted a position at a convalescent center on the island. In 1998, she was offered a senior services job by the county and was present when the Mullis Center first opened. After taking a sabbatical from 2005 until 2012 to live in Hawaii and Europe, Stephens resumed her work at senior services and was promoted to manager 3.5 years ago.
“I’ve been blessed that Wendy took on this role,” Health and Human Services Director Mark Tompkins said. “We’ve been blessed that she took that on and has taken senior services in a very positive and wonderful direction.”
Stephens explained at the most recent county board of health meeting on Jan. 16 that there were more than 6,000 instances where contact was made between elderly islanders and senior services last year.
“We have the largest senior population in the state,” Stephens said. “Every decision we make, particularly to our older population, is important.”
In her retirement, she plans to travel to Britain and Europe with her husband Dylan to visit their three children and five grandchildren.
“I’m very confident that I leave at a good time. The department’s absolutely solid,” Stephens said. “Mark has extraordinary leadership, so I have no doubt that senior services will continue to be very progressive.”
Tompkins said his goal is that senior services builds on the work Stephens has done, like additional health and wellness classes and other services to provide to seniors. She has started the ball rolling on so many projects, he said and added that Stephens is leaving the department on the path to continue that work. She has spent a lot of time looking for programs and services to attract seniors to the centers and it is working according to statistics, she explained at the Board of Health meeting.
For the past three years, Stephens has overseen the work done by the islands’ three senior services specialists: San Juan’s Debbie Haagensen, Orcas’ Jami Mitchell and Lopez’ Roni Becker. Human Services Manager Barbara LaBrash will be taking over Stephen’s duties, which include coordinating case management, family caregiver support, organizing support groups, scheduling health and wellness classes and more.
“I think our health and community services department is pretty awesome as far as I am concerned. It totally rocks,” Stephens said.
The San Juan County Health and Community Services department restructured recently resulting in a merger of senior services and human services. An Orcas islander, LaBrash will be based on Orcas but will spend part of her time on San Juan and Lopez as well.
“Whatever the senior needs, we are here to do our best to help serve,” Stephens said.
When asked whether her world travels will someday bring her back to the islands, Stephens was unsure.
“The doors are always open in one’s lifetime so I just like to follow the journey and see where it goes,” she said.