by Hope Hernandez
When Roger Hand, the current director of Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP), calls to tell me that a friend of ours, Helen, has unexpectedly passed away, I feel as if someone has yanked my shoulders back, jerking me upright. I can barely get out the words, “Oh, no!” as my mind reflects on how we had lunch together just a few short weeks ago. Wiping the tears from my eyes, I slowly hang up the phone. After a minute or two of deep breaths, I pick up the receiver and dial my friend who introduced me to Helen. He needs to hear this sad news from me alone. Helen Paul, a pillar of the community, a staunch defender of senior citizens’ rights, and a warm and witty woman, is suddenly gone forever. She was in her seventies, but a vibrant, energetic seventy — full of life and vigor. I can only hope to look as good as she did at that age. I first met Helen when I worked for the Santa Barbara School District, back in 1968. She ran the department that provided educational material for all elementary schools in the district. I remember my first impression of Helen as a red-headed, statuesque woman with the body of a dancer — such a graceful and commanding presence! Since I’m the daughter of a jeweler, I noticed and admired the exquisite rings and necklaces she wore. We became friends throughout the next 13 years of working for the school district. When Proposition 13 was passed in the 1980s, we both lost our jobs. Helen went on to the directorship of RSVP after its director retired. I continued with my career as a typesetter with a graphics firm. As a member of the RSVP board, I was lucky enough to serve with this dynamic trio: Helen Paul, Marge Benke, and Iola Baker. The organization — with Helen as director, Marge as capable administrative assistant, and superhuman Iola as supervisor of the real help program — worked as a well-oiled machine. I must mention that Iola was in her eighties when she first took the position. These three remarkable women reigned supreme until 2000, when they decided to retire together. A new era began for RSVP under the skilled leadership of Roger Hand and the noteworthy assistance of Marcus Thrane. During my time on this board, I became familiar with Helen’s fire and tenacity in meetings, as she was a passionate speaker in expressing her views. With the partnership of CALM and Unity Shoppe, RSVP entered into a co-ownership which purchased the Victoria Street Theater. This was a tremendous achievement for three non-profit organizations, and a credit to their effective work together. It still amazes me that only a few short weeks ago, I met Helen for lunch. We had a wonderful time laughing and enjoying each other’s company. Once again, I came away in awe of her as a person — such a humorous conversationalist and informed activist on social issues, and an intelligent, beautiful friend. I know she would not want me to be sad at her departure from this earth, but rather to celebrate the warmth of our friendship. Still, I think she would be pleased to know the tears I shed are proof that she truly touched my heart, for now and always. I will miss her hearty laughter, distinctive voice, and, most of all, her presence as a person who embodied so many fine characteristics and talents. She was a strong, unique woman with many friends; I’m privileged to have been one of them. The Christmas card Helen sent me last year was so beautiful. Her kind words let me know how much she valued our friendship. My goal is to live up to those words and be the good person she always believed I was. Helen always encouraged me to hone my writing skills, stating that I could envision a story from everything and anything in life. This is why I was compelled to write for her — to honor her life with my words.