Elena Dinkin, 61, who manages Active Older Adult programs at the YMCA of Greater Houston, has always wanted senior citizens to have a blast. When she created the “Be a Kid for a Day” fieldtrip to the YMCA’s Camp Cullen in Lake Livingston, seniors hopped on board to go canoeing and zip lining – having the time of their lives.
One of those seniors was John Zanders, 91, who is one of twenty Holocaust survivors living in Houston. Zanders has struggled with isolation and depression from the age of 13, when he narrowly escaped Nazi Germany and resettled in the United States without his parents.
In the words of Zanders’ daughter, Lharissa Jacobs, “Elena invited Dad to be a part of the bridge club at the Weekley YMCA two years ago. Not only is Dad obsessed with bridge now, but he never misses a game day and he is no longer depressed. One of my sisters called me and asked what kind of magic we had worked on Dad because he was no longer complaining of being lonely and down.”
Grateful for Dinkin’s attention to her father, Jacobs nominated her for a 12-county, regional contest for those who actively support senior citizens. The contest was sponsored by TexanPlus, a local health plan, and the Houston Astros.
Competing against four other nominees for votes, Dinkin won, earning the YMCA $25,000 for senior programs. She was awarded the title of “TexanPlus Champion” at a Houston Astros game where she threw the first pitch.
“I love what I do and never felt the need to be honored,” Dinkin said. “But knowing that the YMCA now has $25,000 for seniors is so exciting. We are the largest growing population in the United States and need so much support.”
More than 30,000 senior citizens belong to the YMCA of Greater Houston, and many have seen their quality of life flourish under the caring vigilance of Dinkin. Treating them as if they were her own family, Dinkin has delivered a personalized touch to those looking for a place to exercise, play bridge, garden, go on senior fieldtrips and make lifelong friends.
Dinkin, a former medical social worker, finds that the little things change the lives and health of her older clientele. Seniors say she uplifts their lives, especially those who are alone, feel isolated, and often suffer from depression.
Working with an expansive team, Dinkin brings presenters to the YMCA to discuss many topics, including health issues, health insurance, current events, retirement living and end-of-life care to more than 1,200 seniors a year. She makes it possible for 50-80 seniors to obtain health screenings, including bone density, blood pressure, and blood sugar tests every month.
After putting Zanders on the lecture circuit at the YMCA and allowing him to share his Holocaust survival story, Dinkin said he exhibits much relief after decades of emotional struggles. At last, he feels part of a greater family and admits that his witty sense of humor has awakened again – often wearing an “Am Single, Will Mingle!” sign on his t-shirt.
“I can’t think of anyone more deserving of this honor,” Zanders said. “I don’t know what we would do without Elena.”