Jefferson Award winner

The Sunshine Lady lifts residents' spirits in nursing homes

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In nursing homes around the region, she makes a point to seek out those who never get visitors -- along with anyone else who needs a lift to their spirits.

At Atria and Manor Care, Paramount and Overlook Green, Arlene Oehling is known as "The Sunshine Lady," singing songs, dancing, joking, in costume and hoisting props. Just before Easter she donned an Easter bonnet while singing "Easter Parade," accompanied by accordionist "Mikey D," aka Duwayne Dorich.

"I never met anyone like her who had so much enthusiasm and kindness of heart," said Mr. Dorich.

Ms. Oehling is one of six local finalists for Most Outstanding Volunteer for the Jefferson Awards of Public Service, a national program that recognizes public service. An awards ceremony will be held Tuesday at Heinz Field, where the winner will be announced. That person will represent Western Pennsylvania at the national Jefferson Awards ceremony in Washington, D.C., this summer.

Launched in 1972, the local version of the program is administered by the Post-Gazette with sponsorship by Highmark and BNY Mellon.

PNC Foundation will donate $1,000 to Bethesda Children's Home in Meadville, Crawford County, on behalf of Ms. Oehling.

At age 75, Ms. Oehling may be, in her words, "Officially, officially, officially retired," but she nonetheless spends 40 to 50 hours a month visiting seniors at more than half a dozen nursing facilities near her home in Carrick. Because she drives there on her own, she can't go very far, but she's out of the house every Wednesday.

Ms. Oehling is not a professional singer. She was a drum majorette at Carrick High School but spent her career behind a desk as a secretary before retiring a decade ago. Still, she's good at what she does -- which is to connect and cheer up a roomful of people who might be lonely or sad or discouraged.

"So many people who live in these homes never get visitors," Ms. Oehling said in a recent interview about her "gigs" before more than 50 residents at a time. "I just love being with them."

"Arlene has touched the hearts of hundreds of people," said Sherry Campbell, who nominated Ms. Oehling for the Jefferson Award and was her former supervisor at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Pittsburgh branch. She noted that Ms. Oehling, who never married, spent years caring for her mother and brother and today has no family.

"The bright side is where she dwells, yet she gets little credit for that, nor does she seek any," said Ms. Campbell. "It comes as no surprise to me that she chooses to spend holidays with those in nursing homes bringing some 'Arlene sunshine' and happiness to them. In our busyness and self-importance, so many of us don't recognize the real heroes for their contributions to the heart."

A native of Mount Oliver and a graduate of Carrick High School, Ms. Oehling worked for 371/2 years at Greyhound, rising to the level of executive secretary before being let go when the company downsized.

That same year, Ms. Campbell hired her to work at HUD.

"She's just not like other people," Ms. Campbell said, noting that until her own retirement, every year on the anniversary of her employment Ms. Oehling would send her a card with the number of years she had worked at the department and still never misses her birthday or holiday.

Most of her audience today can't dance, but Ms. Oehling takes the hands of people in wheelchairs to urge them to sing along or get into the spirit of a particular holiday or season or just have fun (when she sings "Mona Lisa," she whips out a portrait of the painting and always gets a laugh).

"They can't stand up, but I just hold their hands. I remember one younger man was in a wheelchair and he said, 'You know what? You're the kind of woman who could probably make me walk.' That made me feel wonderful."

She's become so familiar in the senior community "I even get stopped at Giant Eagle by a family member, where they say, 'Oh, hi, Sunshine Lady. My dad loves you.'

"I never considered that this was something I would do, but it's good for my heart."

The shows don't always go perfectly smoothly -- once, a resident in a wheelchair ran over her toes. It hurt, but she wasn't injured. "Someone must have been looking out for me," she said.

Recently, she appeared at the Atria in Baldwin and at The Palms at O'Neil in McKeesport, and she'll keep on going for as long as she can.

"It is not a surprise to me that she burst into her own sunshine when she retired," said Ms. Campbell. "She has too much happiness to share -- so much love in her heart. The upper crust of a company may never know her name, but to hundreds of people whose hearts she's touched and made whole again -- they'll never forget her name, and that's why I nominated her."

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