Local resident Sydney Johnson to co-chair April 27 benefit for Serving Seniors

Amid the clink of fine china and the din of high-brow hob-knobbing at Serving Seniors’ annual gala “Experience of a Lifetime: Uncork Your Support” at the Del Mar Country Club April 27, event co-chair Sydney Johnson will keep her focus trained on the stage of the posh ballroom.

After the welcome hour, after the silent auction, after executive chef Jonathan Sudar presents the evening’s menu and explains its pairings with the wines hand-picked from the cellar of Gary and Mary West — the philanthropist husband-and-wife whose foundation funds Serving Seniors’ wellness center in downtown San Diego — the soiree will fall silent. One of Serving Seniors’ clients will take to the stage to detail how their life had skittered off the rails, and how the nonprofit helped, in turn, prop them back up.

“It’s very hard to look around the room and find a dry eye when they hear about the reality of aging without any funds, and potentially being homeless, that you are always just one retirement check or Social Security check from being out on the streets,” said Johnson who also co-chaired the event in 2015.

For the past five years, Johnson has counted herself among the 500 volunteers who pitch in to the diverse array of services offered by Serving Seniors. Her first visit to the Gary and Mary West Senior Wellness Center, in 2012, struck a personal chord. Only two years prior, her father-in-law had unexpectedly died soon after retiring.

“He really didn’t have his senior years to enjoy life,” Johnson said. “And when I first went down there, I saw all these elderly who were living their senior years but not enjoying it.”

Johnson, who lives in Torrey Highlands, would go on to join their board of directors, always making sure to keep going back to the West center to serve meals. It was a precipitous time for the 45-year-old nonprofit. The following year they changed their name from Senior Community Centers to Serving Seniors and set to work on a revamped fundraising strategy. From that effort emerged the idea of the Experience of a Lifetime fundraiser.

Serving Seniors is far more than just the free, twice-daily meals handed out to 5,000 San Diegans each year. Social workers help steer clients toward the services they need the most, including help with housing, time with nursing staff and wellness classes. Serving Seniors partners with more than two dozen agencies to cover a full gamut of needs.

The California Department of Finance last year reported 7.6 million Californians age 60 and older. That number is expected to swell to nearly 11 million over the next dozen years. By 2050, one in every four Californians will be in their golden years.

Most of Serving Seniors’ clients have hit hard times for economic reasons rather than mental health issues or substance abuse. Two out of five of San Diego’s elderly have to choose each month between either food or rent.

“If you’re retired and on a limited income, living in San Diego is shoestring,” Johnson said. “You’re essentially living month to month — and for a lot of those months, toward the end of the month you’re completely out of funds.”

And as San Diego’s demographics are projected to skew older each year — and housing costs to creep steadily upward — Serving Seniors is pushing even harder with government agencies and other nonprofits to put a support network into place now to cope with what’s ahead.

They added a bevy of dental services last year, and recently launched the Shiley Dementia/Alzheimer’s Early Detection and Intervention Pilot Program, funded through a two-year, $100,000 grant from The Shiley Foundation.

“The thing about Serving Seniors is it’s been around 45 years and has a long-standing history of delivering successfully, even in really lean times,” Johnson said. “As an entity that receives government funds as a good portion of its budget, it’s had its ups and downs and has had to rely on private fundraising in order to sustain the organization.”

The political uncertainty that looms on the horizon makes this year’s fundraising drive all the more crucial, said Johnson.

“It really allows us to fill the gaps,” she said. “We try to ensure that the larger donors remain in the picture but, really, a lot of the non-governmental budget comes from small-time donors, somebody who’s doing $5 a month, $10 a month.”

Limited tickets are still available for the April 27 gala, which will be held from 5:30 p.m.-9 p.m. at the Del Mar Country Club. To learn more or purchase tickets, go to