An 83-year-old woman who has volunteered in Palo Alto for 37 years received a presidential award from President Barack Obama on Wednesday (Jan. 26).
Linda Vargas, a San Jose resident, received the President's Volunteer Service "Call to Service" Lifetime Award during a reception at Abilities United, a Palo Alto nonprofit organization for people with developmental and physical disabilities. Since 1974, Vargas has worked three to four hours, three days each week helping the fund-development department. Her son, Robin, attends adult day care there.
Obama was not present to personally hand the award to Vargas -- Volunteer Coordinator Joanie Meyers did the honors -- but Vargas beamed as though the president had pinned the blue enamel pin with the presidential seal to her lapel.
Vargas was not expecting the award, although she knew something was up when staff told her she would receive a special honor that day, she said.
The presidential pin had company: The lapel of Vargas' red blazer shone with more than a half-dozen pins she has received from Abilities United commemorating her service.
"I'm very honored by my presidential pin," she said.
Vargas was also given a personalized certificate and a congratulatory letter from Obama, which staff framed along with her portrait. A dozen or so clients were on hand for the celebration; they presented Vargas with a basketful of heart-shaped cookies they baked and a valentine each person had signed.
The lifetime award is the highest honor of five awards given by the president to people who volunteer. Four are based on hours of service in a 12-month period. Since its inception in 2003, 1.9 million awards have been given to individuals and groups.
But the lifetime award is a special honor, bestowed on those who have done 4,000 hours of volunteer service over a lifetime. Vargas has clocked at least 4,500 hours.
"Linda is an overachiever in the Lifetime of Achievement," Susan Vaswani, a volunteer who is coordinating efforts to find and nominate other volunteers for the awards, said.
Vargas has helped staff raise more than $1.5 million for services, Abilities United spokeswoman Wendy Kuehnl said.
In the early years, she did everything by hand. When the office wasn't computerized, she wrote thank-you notes to donors and logged in donations on index cards kept in a file box, she said. Now she has learned computer skills, scans checks for easy information retrieval and assists in database administration, Justin Czujko, the database manager under whom Vargas works, said.
"She's the most reliable volunteer we have," Czujko said.
Every Wednesday, Vargas drives the 72 miles to and from her home in San Jose. When Robin, who has cerebral palsy, first came to Abilities United in 1972, Vargas received one day a week to shop and do other errands while he attended the respite-care program. There were no comparable programs for him in San Jose after he turned 21, she said.
Robin thrived at Abilities United and he began to attend three, and then five days a week. Vargas drove him to and back from Palo Alto each day for two years, until bus service became available and Robin could travel on his own, she said.
But even as her burden lessened, Vargas kept up volunteering, doing the small, unglamorous jobs that are the backbone of nonprofit organizations. She is humble and upbeat and always ready with a smile, colleagues said.
Vargas and her husband of 65 years, Joe, have twin sons, Robin and Robert, and a daughter, Rhonda. Traveling to Palo Alto now is "a challenge," but Vargas isn't ready to give up.
"I live for Wednesdays," Vargas said, simply. "Everyone has a hobby; mine is volunteering." Robin also volunteers, shredding paper in the office at Stevenson House senior residences. He and others in the adult day program sometimes rake leaves, she said.
"Linda gives of herself and she gives so graciously and lovingly. And she creates an entire tone and atmosphere around her that we all enjoy and we all feel nurtured by her," volunteer coordinator Joanie Meyers said.
Vargas said she encourages other people to donate their time doing the little things.
"It helps me to volunteer. There's so much out there in the community. It's been rewarding for me. They're such wonderful people: I could start out my day down and they make me feel good," she said. "I was going to retire when I turned 75, but I'm still here."