Beloved Nonprofit Executive Heidi Holly Steps Down After 38 Years

by | May 23, 2023 | Featured Nonprofits

“It has truly been an honor to serve our elder generation and I am eternally grateful to learn from their pearls of wisdom, ” said Heidi Holly, Executive Director of Friendship Center. “I never imagined that, when I began working at Friendship Center, how much my life would change, and how I would be inspired by a mission so compelling that I would spend the next 38 years there.” 

Some people who know Holly call her a “firecracker,” others say she is “vibrant.” She would describe herself as a fun-loving hippie. She loves dressing in wild, colorful outfits that fit whatever occasion arises. If there is no occasion, she can quickly cook up one. “I have the ability to have fun at a moment’s notice, in addition to wearing outrageous outfits and costumes during holidays, or for theme events.” I have noticed that Holly always brings a smile to faces when she walks into a room, with board members, staff, or the seniors she serves.

For all her light-hearted approach to life, Holly has a solid educational background and strong work experiences. Holly graduated with a BA Degree from UCSB in Behavioral Sciences. In addition, she attended Antioch University and studied Organizational Management. She is a certified teacher for California Community Colleges and has taught through the Adaptive Program of Santa Barbara City College. She is a certified California administrator of residential care facilities for the elderly. Currently she serves on the Wellness and End of Life Committee, and the Adult and Aging Network. Holly has served on many nonprofit boards and has been a presenter at the local, state, and national level on issues pertaining to the aging population. 

After high school, she worked at the East Moline State Mental Hospital. “I worked in a geriatric ward, a criminal ward, and a medical ward,” she says. “This is where I developed my desire to provide a service.”

Holly joined Friendship Center in 1985. During her tenure, Holly innovated programs and activities including the GOLD (“Growing Old”) project whereby public/charter school children get together with the aging population to diminish the idea of ageism.

Holly has also significantly grown the budget with strong community relationships and support, including building a $6 million endowment. They have also strengthened programs for senior veterans. 

Serving over 140 seniors (called “members”) each week, the adult day program provides services for aging and dependent adults and respite for their caregivers. They serve an average of 2.5 caregivers for each member. Friendship Center brings social activities to enhance seniors’ quality of life, promote self-esteem, and increase their ability to continue living at home.  

“The ultimate goal is that caregivers get a break,” explains Holly. “We’re affordable. We can deter long-term care which can be quite costly, running from $8,000 to $12,000 per month, contingent on the level of care needed.” Instead, Friendship Center offers eligible seniors and aging adults stipends to attend their programs Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., and until 2:00 pm on Fridays.

“The number one priority of seniors is to stay at their home as long as possible,” says Holly. “With us they receive socialization, meals, and assistance with care and medicine, enhancing their quality of life, promoting self-esteem, and increasing their ability to continue living at home.” Holly is very proud of the comprehensive activities and programs they provide, including their Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) program, Connections, that meets three hours a week to engage members in mentally stimulating activities that provide an opportunity to learn and practice techniques designed to enhance memory, brain health, and mental/physical wellbeing. “It’s a social club where everyone makes new friends,” she says.

Friendship Center is the only program of its type on the South Coast. All the staff is trained in CPR, First Aid and dementia care and the Center licensed by the state of California. The Center is also a Best Friends ™ certified site, practicing person-centered care for the members that attend the program.

In 1976, the Community Action Commission founded Friendship Center as a pilot daycare project for elder and dependent adults in Santa Barbara’s small Friendship Baptist church, hence the name. By 1979, the program had grown into All Saints-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church’s larger property in Montecito.

Friendship Center faced some significant and unpredictable challenges including the January 2018 debris flow and the COVID pandemic over the past few years. The organization managed to remain flexible in both instances and pivoted to provide services in other locations and in new and creative ways. 

When asked about her hope for the organization in the future, Holly expressed that, “My desire is that Friendship Center grows and flourishes and continues to have an abundance of funding from supporters to serve our seniors in need, and to provide much needed respite to our caregivers. I also am hopeful that someone will take over the leadership role of Friendship Center who has a passion for the mission with an eye toward serving unmet needs in our community. “ 

Holly is originally from Davenport, Iowa. In 1979, she decided to move to Santa Barbara, leaving a brutal Iowa winter behind. She drove a 1972 Volkswagen Super Beetle that was day-glow orange. She painted it yellow after arriving in Santa Barbara to signal her new chapter.

“Santa Barbara was Bohemia,” she exclaims. “I would go to the Blue Bird Café, Baudelaire’s, and Joe’s Café. I got various jobs and went to SBCC and then to UCSB to study sociology, communications, and psychology.”

Holly’s motto is, “Always be kind, have a good attitude, and never give up.” She says, “The secret to staying youthful is emptying your mind of negative thoughts day to day to keep your spirit full. If you can do that, you will be free.”

Her idea of perfect happiness is enjoying a picnic by a pond with great wine on a beautiful, warm sunny day with family and friends, surrounded by gorgeous trees and blue skies.

Holly says her greatest extravagance is trips to her second home in Palm Springs with her family and friends, and dining at Spencer’s, John Henry’s, and Melvyn’s restaurants. Also, chocolate, Rice Krispies treats, peanut butter pretzels from T.J.’s, a good book, and red wine.

Holly exclaims, “I am a much better person knowing that all in a day’s work, Friendship Center’s team of dedicated and caring staff, board members, and volunteers have contributed to the quality of a senior’s life and provided much needed respite to their often overworked caregivers.”