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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, May 09, 2001

Diana Steeples: A lifetime of advocacy Diana Steeples: A lifetime of advocacy (May 09, 2001)

Visitors to the Avenidas Senior Center in downtown Palo Alto enter a large reception area that is the gateway to the many activities, programs, classes and services Avenidas offers.

Only a handful of visitors know of the vast difference between Avenidas today and the small room in Palo Alto's Downtown Library where Diana Steeples in 1971 established the first services for older adults in the Palo Alto area.

"My title, 'Senior Adult Community Resources Coordinator,' was longer than the room was wide," Steeples says of her quarters of three decades ago.

Until her retirement in 1997, Diana was a catalyst for the development of programs that now serve more than 6,000 older adults annually.

"Truly, if anyone deserves credit for the breadth, depth and vitality of Avenidas' services, Diana does," Kathleen Gwynn, former president and CEO of Avenidas, said of Steeples' contributions.

Born in St. Louis, Mo., Steeples considers herself a Californian. Her parents were raised in Southern California and embedded their history in her and her younger sister, Susan (Hartzell), even though the family moved around the country during her childhood as her father advanced his career in higher education.

"I had marvelous parents," she said of Derwood and Elizabeth Baker. "And even though we moved around a lot I had this great childhood. My parents were what we would call today 'progressive,' and were always very interested in the modern, whether it was furniture, or art, or dance." They also became involved in the communities where they happened to be living -- an example Steeples would follow.

Steeples obtained a bachelor of arts degree in sociology from Pomona College, then did graduate studies at the New York School of Social Work (Columbia University). She worked briefly for Bellevue Hospital in New York City, where she found she was actually quite good at social work -- especially in helping families find resources they needed.

In 1953, Diana relocated to Glendora, California to accept a position with the Los Angeles County General Hospital, working in the Bureau of Medical Social Services. She met her future husband, a doctor, and her professional career was put on hold while she practiced homemaking and child-raising skills. But the marriage didn't last.

"I had two young children (daughter Ann and son Alan) and I knew I couldn't manage without having a job and an income. I had done some job hunting, quietly, and then I decided to take the children and visit a college chum of mine who lived on a cattle ranch in Nevada, outside of Ely." En route, Steeples lost control of the car and it rolled over twice, seriously injuring her daughter.

"There we were by the side of the road, out in the middle of nowhere in Nevada," she recalled of that traumatic emergency. But then occurred "one of those marvelous examples of how people turn out to help other people, even complete strangers." With the aid of passing motorists and local authorities, Steeples and her daughter were flown to Salt Lake City for emergency care -- but her daughter still required additional expert attention over the long-term.

"I made the decision to move to Palo Alto. They had one of the nation's, and in fact one of the world's, most noted plastic surgeons. So that is how I wound up in Palo Alto. I had made the decision to leave (the marriage and Glendora), but I didn't exactly mean to leave with such drama."

Her first job in the area was as a social worker for the Santa Clara County Department of Social Services, doing welfare work in San Jose. But she soon accepted a position as the first executive director of C.A.R. (the Community Association for Rehabilitation). It was her first introduction to "program development," which "is just a fancy word for fund-raising, and is terribly hard work."

Her next move was to the Children's Hospital at Stanford (now the Lucile Salter Packard Children's Hospital) as coordinator for outpatient services. By 1971 she had become acting director of social services.

Steeples became aware of nonprofit citizens' group in Palo Alto that was lobbying the city to create an information-referral service for older adults -- the group called itself the Senior Coordinating Council of the Palo Alto Area, or SCC, now known as Avenidas.

"Senior clubs" in the area at the time were primarily social clubs, but the SCC founders wanted a place where seniors could obtain information on resources they needed. The city eventually appropriated funds to create the small "Senior Information Referral Room" in the then-new Downtown Library, and Steeples was hired as the first "adult community resources director."

But the SCC organizers pursued a bigger dream: to establish a multi-service senior center in the downtown area, which had the greatest concentration of older adults in the community. With the help of an "impossible" $1 million fund-raising effort, the SCC was awarded a long-term lease of the remodeled police-fire building on Bryant Street just north of University Avenue. Steeples became a core member of the SCC staff, with both a small paid staff and an "unpaid staff" of 75 to 100 community volunteers.

The SCC became Avenidas shortly before her retirement in 1997, by which time Diana had served as director of individual services, director of planning and community needs, director of development and finally director of community relations.

Steeples also has been active in several other nonprofit community groups, including the Christmas Bureau, the Farmers' Market in Downtown Palo Alto and the League of Women Voters.

"I was very fortunate in the development of my career with Avenidas, partly because the Senior Coordinating Council was an existing and determined community body. But even nationally there began to be an increasing awareness of the needs of older adults, which had not been there before. So I rode, in some sense, the crest of this national trend.

"But Palo Alto has been a very progressive city and was willing to move into the arena of helping people with their needs as opposed to (creating) just lovely recreational programs for seniors."

"And I had a talent I am not sure I even realized I had. It was in discovering that I could bring together volunteers and agencies to find out what all the resources were, to make the right contacts, to begin to help people when they called or came in with their problems, and do the publicity for these fledgling programs. .

"It really was amazing and quite exciting work."


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