“I believe you do what you can do while you can do it,” said Stella Nash, a community servant, registered dietician and nutritionist, and member of Senior Planet Colorado.
I spoke with her via Zoom last week after she received the honor of being named one of the Denver Urban Spectrum 2020 African Americans Who Make a Difference. She struck me as the kind of person who can’t help but make a difference—her enthusiasm is contagious, and her commitment to the public good is lifelong. But if there was a through-line in our conversation, it was the value she places on education. Born in Goulde, Arkansas, Stella received her Bachelors of Science Degree in Dietetics from the University of Arkansas and moved to New York City to work as a nutritionist; she earned her Masters in Nutrition Education from NYU. Later, she moved back to Arkansas to work as a nutritionist with the University’s Cooperative Extension Service, but she realized that the rural context was presenting different challenges than the urban setting she’d faced in New York. So Stella spent a year studying Rural Sociology at Penn State.
She puts her own spin on the Kafka proverb: “With education, it’s better to have and not need than need and not have.”
After a long career studded with honors, Stella retired. But she’s not done learning. Right now, she’s reading The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels, by Michael Watkins; she recently finished The Lost Art of Listening and The New Jim Crow. Just last summer, Stella was at a community meeting in Denver when a woman announced that a new technology program was coming to Colorado—it was free for anyone over the age of 60, and it would teach them to use computers and other technology. Intrigued, Stella took down the phone number and called. It was Senior Planet.
Since the Senior Planet center’s opening last September, Stella’s already taken four courses, and she’s become a vital member and advocate of the program. She’s also deeply connected to other initiatives promoting the health and well-being of her community: she sits on the board of directors of LiveWell Colorado and on the board of Montbello 20/20, a registered neighborhood organization; she volunteers with the Colorado Black Health Collaborative; and she’s a member of the Delta Dears, the over-60 arm of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority focused on sisterhood, service, and scholarship. But when she spoke to the Denver Urban Spectrum for her award profile, she highlighted her work spreading the word about Senior Planet as her most notable contribution over the last year, saying, “The next big challenge [for the community] is using technology.”
I connected with Stella to learn more about her impressive accomplishments in a life of service. I also got to ask her why she’s so passionate about Senior Planet.
“I like the refreshments,” she told me, laughing. “The coffee’s great.”
Senior Planet: You were born and raised in Arkansas and were educated in Arkansas, New York, Chicago, and Pennsylvania. How did you land in Colorado?
Stella: My husband was an engineer, and he moved to Colorado in 1978 for work. I was working as a nutritionist with the Arkansas State Department of Education, and I thought, I’m not ready to leave yet, so he should see if he really likes it there first. Eventually the University of Arkansas helped me find work out there with Colorado State University as a supervising agent for the Denver County Extension Service. Then a nutritionist position opened at the Mountain Plains regional office for the USDA Food and Nutrition Service, and I got that job.
Tell me about your work there.
There were seven regional offices; this one covered 10 states and 30 tribal organizations. We worked with the SNAP program, WIC services, school meal programs, the Child and Adult Care Food Program, food distribution on reservations, the Commodity Supplemental Food Program for the aging, and nutrition education for people of all ages. We were encouraging people to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables, and I helped offer training and technical assistance to the feeding programs. In 1990, I became the Regional Director of the Mountain Plains region.
You probably got to make a big impact in that role.
Well, all the dietary guidelines that get pushed out by the federal government every few years have to pass through the regional offices. So I helped shape the MyPlate guidelines that are in use now. In 2005, the federal Undersecretary of Agriculture sent me and one other person from the DC office to represent the United States at the International Congress on Nutrition in South Africa. We presented eight sessions on the impact of our programs. I was also chosen to exhibit at the World Food Prize, which is like the Nobel Prize for agriculture. In 2016, I got the Rocky Mountain Eagle Award for outstanding customer service, and then in 2017 I retired.
Well deserved! So how did you get involved in Senior Planet?
I like to know what’s going on in my community, so I go to a lot of community meetings in Denver. That’s where I heard about it. I always bring a pen and paper to these meetings, and when that woman made the announcement she rattled off a phone number and I took it down. I called and spoke with Clarence [the Senior Planet Program Lead]. They weren’t open yet, but he let me know he would contact me when they were. And he did! I showed up and registered easily. I was really impressed.
I’ve taken Computer Basics, iPad Essentials, Money Matters, and Social Media. I also was on the Zoom call talking to other seniors in South Africa.
Tell me about the work you do informing others about Senior Planet. Why is it so important to you?
If you can get what you need, especially when it’s free— that’s really touched me. Working with Senior Planet like this gives me an opportunity not only to share, but to give back in ways I wanted to but couldn’t when I was employed. I get to use what I learn outside of class—all of it, even little things I thought I knew. I work with a group that empowers young men to become more independent, and I got to use Zoom with them. I put it all into practice. But even if I know how to do something, if the other people in my—I guess you can call it—my “sphere of influence” don’t, there’s not much I can do with that knowledge.
I believe in education, and I know from sitting in some of the groups I participate in that there’s a tremendous need for people over 60 to learn how to use their smartphones and so forth. Some of them say, my child gave me this and I don’t know how to use it. This is the information age, and people need to be informed.
And when you’re excited about something, you can get other people excited about it too. I tell everyone about it. After I went there, I sent an email to my sorority the Delta Dears, the Golden Age club, and other groups I’m a part of encouraging them to come. I’ve worked with friends to give out cards in my neighborhood letting people know about the center. I also got to speak on Channel 7 for Colorado Gives Day. I want people to know that if there’s something like Senior Planet that’s free, and they’ve been sitting around saying, I wish I knew how to do this, they should just come. I tell people that there is something out there for them. And when people do go, they find that not only are they learning, but they also get a chance to socialize and meet new people.
When you’re not doing work in your community, what do you like to do?
I love to read—I’m reading so many books. Right now I’m reading The First 90 Days by Michael Watkins. I also crochet and knit. I go to the performing arts center, go to museums, go to concerts. I play a lot of Scrabble in my neighborhood. You know what I’m doing when I get off this call? Going to Scrabble.
I understand you have to travel quite a distance from home to Senior Planet.
It takes me about an hour through the city on a good day.
What makes it worth the trip?
All the classes have been good. The teachers are great. Everyone there is so friendly and so helpful. But really, I just like the atmosphere of the place. There’s a lot of social isolation among older adults, and this is like a gathering place where you can sit down near a computer and hang out with someone. You get to know new people. I love to listen—I’ll learn what they need, who they are. When you get there, you just feel like you’re home.