Rona Barrett is a pint-sized powerhouse who, at age 80, is having one of the busiest summers of her life.
Barrett is out promoting her new book, "Rona Barrett's Gray Matters," is putting on a major benefit concert this weekend, and is finalizing a partnership for the operation of the next phase of her Golden Inn & Village (GIV) called Harry's House - a Home for Alzheimer's and Assisted Living - at Golden Inn & Village.
The book is a compilation of Barrett's popular columns on senior issues, published in the Santa Ynez Valley News, the Santa Maria Times, and the Lompoc Record. (Gray Matters is on hiatus until September). The book was published in June by her Rona Barrett Foundation and is available for sale via the Foundation's website.
"Wherever I went, Santa Ynez, Lompoc, Santa Maria, I had people who'd come up to me and say, 'Rona, you are Rona Barrett, aren't you? I just had to tell you I love your column. You made me consider things I needed to consider, and boy did you make me laugh'. I started getting lots of requests to do speaking engagements at various senior centers around Santa Maria. In Solvang, I'd get stopped at Nielsen's or wherever."
It became increasingly clear to Barrett, she said, that she should compile the columns into a book and sell it as a way to raise money for her foundation. She took it to her board of directors who enthusiastically agreed.
Her foundation's grant writers, Jon and Charlotte O'Brien, took on the task of putting the book together. They culled through her then 105 columns, selecting 55 for the book. They hired a graphic designer and came up with the cover concept, a caricature of Barrett with a thought bubble that reflected the aging process: "All dressed up...but I can't remember where I'm going!"
Barrett very much remembers why she'll be getting dressed up on Saturday, July 8. That's when the legendary Count Basie Orchestra, with guest artist Paula Cole, will be in concert at the Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara as a benefit for Harry's House. In addition to the show, there will be a live auction conducted by Santa Maria's Jim Glines.
The orchestra and singer/songwriter Cole (best known for "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone") have performed together only once previously. Between them are 19 Grammy Awards.
Putting them together, said Barrett, was the idea of her foundation's development director, Darlene Ramirez, creating a show that will appeal to two different types of jazz audiences and tapping into the Lobero's large jazz fan base.
Barrett and her foundation board had been anxious to do a fundraiser in Santa Barbara.
"All of our fundraising up until now has been in the Santa Ynez Valley. We are hoping to tap into resources in Santa Barbara. Just because we are 35 minutes away doesn't mean you shouldn't care what's happening here. This is going to become a model for how you take care of seniors who are financially challenged throughout the state," she said.
Fundraising is a never-ending endeavor, explained Barrett. GIV is fully occupied but still in need of an onsite dining program. The estimated cost for that is $200,000 a year, she said.
Then's there's the construction of Harry's House. It will be built on the large empty lot in front of GIV's senior housing building, directly across Mission Drive from the Stuart C. Gildred Family YMCA. It will cost $12 million to build. When complete, it will have 60 units for residents who require assistance with daily living and/or suffer from Alzheimer's disease. Additional staff members will be hired to facilitate 24/7 care.
Barrett's foundation is in negotiations with a new partner to take over operations at Harry's House, like the Housing Authority does at the existing buildings for seniors and families. The potential new partner has specific experience in care of Alzheimer's patients, she said.
"They are an incredibly worthwhile, non-government organization," she said.
Barrett's passion for GIV is on full display as she turns to the recognition she received from her friend, Hannah-Beth Jackson, when the California State Senator introduced Senate Bill No. 62 (SB-62) earlier this year.
The Affordable Senior Housing Act of 2017, as it is formally titled, is intended to address the growing crisis in affordable senior housing in California. It cites GIV as the model that should be replicated state-wide. In part, it states:
"The Golden Inn and Village development in the County of Santa Barbara was created specifically to address the needs of seniors, and especially orphaned seniors – those who have no one left to care for them – and those in need of affordable housing. The whole tri-county community has benefited from its vibrant, model setting, where seniors and others around them thrive."
"It is the intent of the Legislature in enacting this section to foster the development of more facilities like Golden Inn and Village and other affordable, inclusive senior housing units through a statewide development program."
According to Barrett, Gov. Jerry Brown is "very into doing things for seniors who need help." She's optimistic he will sign the bill once it reaches his desk. It is currently still working its way through committees, with its next hearing in Sacramento scheduled for July 11.
"If SB-62 becomes law, it could be the best thing for so many people," said Barrett with visible emotion. "We have so many financially challenged people in this state because of the high cost of housing, and so many seniors lost their nest eggs in the 2007/2008 recession. Then the pot was empty and we have so many seniors who never thought they'd end up in this kind of situation."
Harry's House is named in honor of Barrett's late father. The entertainment reporting pioneer was there to care for him in his final years.
"What would have happened to my father if, when he no longer recognized me, I hadn't been around to take care of him?" she asked.
Her answer was to write "Golden Inn and Cottages" and put down all the things she thought her father would want in such a housing situation.
It's been a long haul but Barrett is on the verge of accomplishing just that, with the anticipated opening of Harry's House in 2018.
For more information on Barrett's new book, "Rona Barrett's Gray Matters," and the July 8 Count Basie Orchestra featuring Paula Cole concert, visit ronabarrettfoundation.org.