Priscilla Essert touts Sonoma’s home away from home for citizens 55 and over.
story Jonah Raskin | photos David Bolling
Before Priscilla Essert stepped into the role of executive director at Vintage House last year, she played the flute for the Mexico City Philharmonic and the Berkeley Symphony. She also went on tour with the famed Russian-born dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, a highlight of her musical career. Essert’s years in the world of dance and music taught her the imperative of working with others collaboratively. “My job at Vintage House feels like making chamber music,” Essert tells me in her distinctly uncluttered office, just off the main corridor, on a Thursday afternoon near the start of spring. A sketch of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo looks down at her as a guiding spirit.
If Vintage House feels like a chamber orchestra, it can also feel like a mini-university, a job-training center, a soup kitchen, and a nonprofit that sustains music, jazz, and the arts. A bustling community, it provides a home away from home for hundreds of Valley residents 55 and over. Just don’t call Vintage House a “senior center” and slam the door shut. Whatever you call it, it’s more ambitious and more effective than any other comparable organization in the county, though Sebastopol and Healdsburg offer somewhat similar, albeit more limited, services. For Essert, Vintage House provides a space for recreation and re-creation.
High-energy, optimistic, and “happily 61 years young,” as she puts it, Essert is a perfect fit for the position. “I love community building,” she says. “I love helping people.” Married to her longtime husband and the mother of two sons, she has lived in Sonoma for seven years. Like many of her contemporaries, she doesn’t care for the word or the concept of “seniors.” She tells me, “We try to avoid it. We don’t care for the word ‘elders’ either, and the phrase ‘senior moments’ is a misnomer.” For many of the members who are 55, 65, 75 and up—Vintage House encourages membership—life is just beginning.
Last year, Vintage House conducted a survey of Sonoma Valley residents who worked for much of their lives, raised families, and found that retirement wasn’t as wonderful as it was made out to be. One surprise was that many in the demographic group were struggling to make ends meet. “Twelve percent don’t feel confident about the future,” Essert says. “Many of them live alone after the death of a spouse and feel lonely.” They tell Essert that they don’t know how to meet people, make friends, and what to do with themselves. Some are itching to get back to work and want job training and help dusting off résumés.
Vintage House provides something for nearly everyone, whether it’s hot jazz, nourishing soup, exuberant Zumba classes or the veritable feeling that they’re staying young in spirit even as they age in years.
Many of the activities are free, though there’s also a sliding scale. Last year, Essert says, Vintage House provided 5,000 free rides for Sonomans. That’s a lot of miles. The organization has a contract with the City of Sonoma, and the city in turn provides funding. Additional revenue comes from fees, grants, private donations, and more.
Essert, who is bilingual and multicultural, wants to reach out to, and be more involved with, the Latino community. “We need to translate flyers into Spanish,” she says. “We could have Mexican food along with ESL classes for men and women 55 and over.” Essert leans forward and looks at her watch. “Americans might reexamine what ‘aging’ means, especially at a time when boomers and millennials are working longer than their parents and grandparents. Here at Vintage House, we have the opportunity to do really innovative and creative things. The sky’s the limit.”
At 78, Jonah Raskin feels young at heart.