Karen Reside can handle challenges. Becoming a mother as a teenager changed the trajectory of her life, and after being mugged on her way to her job in retail, she was too traumatized to go back to work. At a time when many might insulate themselves from the outside world, Karen continued to be adaptable and create opportunities for others in her community and beyond. Quite simply, helping others made her happy.
Over the course of her career, she directed the California state science fair with the education department of the Museum of Science and Industry, arranged volunteer training for the American Youth Soccer Organization’s national office, taught grant writing at the Boys and Girls Clubs and ran an art gallery for women and artists of color.
Eventually, her education work, relationship-building skills and managerial experience led her to the role of president of the Long Beach Gray Panthers, a multigenerational organization founded in the 1970s that focuses on addressing social and economic issues and creating systemic changes, particularly those that affect the lives of seniors. They advocate for things like nursing home reform, Medicare for all, affordable housing, technology access for low earners, etc. After her previous contribution as secretary, Karen continues to grow and revitalize the group with her dedication to bringing young people into the fold via her award-winning internship program.
What inspires you to volunteer?
When I was young, I babysat for a family down the street who were Holocaust survivors. They had the tattoos on their arms. They wouldn’t talk about their experience, but when the husband died, the wife wrote a book. It turned out they were Schindler’s List people. I was always very interested in how people could be so cruel to each other after that experience, because they were very nice people. They inspired me to get involved in service.
Both of my boys played soccer, so I did a lot of work in AYSO. I coached and refereed. They had so much fun, I found a women’s team to play on. And I was also active in the PTA.
Tell us about your volunteer role with the Long Beach Gray Panthers.
As president, I represent them at events and activities. I do most of the press events. We helped launch Ageism Awareness Day with my city council member, the senior center and the vice-mayor of Long Beach.
We’re starting to organize the seniors here at the senior center. They want to be active. Our city just started the budget process for 2025, so we’re talking to them about that. The US Census just changed the projections from 10,000 people turning 62 every day to, now, 12,000. Our country is totally unprepared for that growth in numbers. So, we’re doing a lot of budget lobbying right now. We also distribute food on Fridays and Mondays.
I use what I learned working for the state and lobbying with my union. That’s primarily what the Gray Panthers do. We lobby on behalf of seniors. I know all the legislators that are affiliated with our area at all the different levels, even mentored some of them. A lot of political figures came through the Boys and Girls Club.
What inspired you to get started with this initiative?
I knew about the Gray Panthers from an early age, because Maggie Kuhn, the founder, was on Johnny Carson. I aspired to be like her. When I retired, I read some books on what she was about, and it aligned with my values.
In the 70s, the Gray Panthers had almost a million members, but they had a hard time adapting. They didn’t really have students engaged. That’s one of the reasons we do the intern program. And we’re always recruiting new members.
What are some of your biggest accomplishments?
Getting the city to declare Ageism Awareness Day was huge. We were recognized by the LA Alliance on Community Healthy Aging in Los Angeles. We received an innovation award in 2023. I was personally recognized in Long Beach with a Martin Luther King Peacemaker award for our work helping people collaborate.
We’ve convinced legislators to vote for bills that are important to seniors. We work with 72 other organizations with subject matter experts on different topics. We work in 18 different areas, but our key goals are to preserve Social Security and Medicare, so when our interns get our age, they’ll have access to those benefits. And we’ve been working since our founding on universal health care.
How big Is your core team with the Gray Panthers?
We have six board members and about 100 dues-paying members. Our outreach is about 400-500 in Long Beach, and we partner with other Gray Panthers throughout California. There is a national headquarters in Michigan and there’s a steering committee that oversees the organization.
What are some of your other long-term plans or goals for the organization?
Sustainability. I just got elected for another two-year term, and I’ve identified some younger women of color who are interested. We’re doing leadership development. We’re working with the university to develop a leadership program for older adults, too.
Long Beach also has something called the Diesel Death Corridor. The air quality along the 710 freeway is among the worst in the country. Young people and older people develop asthma at a higher rate than normal, so we’re doing a lot of work to change the air quality.
What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?
We conduct surveys with our partners. We work primarily with low-income seniors, and we gave them grocery gift cards for taking one of them. They gave a lot of great input, and I was able to incorporate it into a plan that’s being developed to change zoning laws. Our interns interviewed 340 people between Thanksgiving and Christmas. We were able to distribute over $20,000 in grocery gift cards around the holidays, which made a big difference for people. That’s what’s most rewarding.
Why is it important for others to get involved with causes they care about?
Nothing happens unless somebody takes a step to push it forward. And it keeps you sharp. One of the reasons I started doing all of this volunteer work was because, when I retired, I started to go to the gym, but I wasn’t working out my brain. Volunteering is great, because you can say no to doing something. Alternatively, you can do a deep dive, because you have the time to do it. You can do what you want. And I think people should understand how our government works. Many people have dropped out, because they don’t understand how they can make change. Being active and engaged allows you to learn.
What do you want people to learn from your story?
They can do the same things. And they can come to a Gray Panther meeting. They can learn how to make change – we’ll teach them.
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Karen? Find local volunteer opportunities.