Meet our recreational therapy team during Activity Professionals Week

We are celebrating National Activity Professionals Week (Jan. 22-26) by spotlighting our Activity Directors at Virginia Health Services senior living communities and nursing and rehabilitation centers.

Activity directors run recreation programs that are resident-focused. Events and activities cater to residents’ tastes and activity directors receive residents’ input. The programs help residents exercise their cognitive, sensory and motor skills, and provide social settings for engagement multiple times a day.

Activity directors also drive employee engagement within their communities, helping with team-centered events and activities to bolster morale and provide stress relief.

It’s not just fun and games! As our Activity Directors describe in their Q&As below, they are an integral part of care planning for residents, with charting and assessments as part of their daily duties.

Meet our Activity Directors:

The Hamilton Assisted Living

Kirstie Saunders | Activity Director

The Hamilton activity director Kirstie Saunders.
Hamilton activity director Kirstie Saunders.

Years with Virginia Health Services: 2 years in March.

What drew you to a career in recreation services in senior living? As a teen I attended church camp in Lynchburg. We had to choose somewhere to volunteer in the community and I chose the nursing home and loved it! I also have family in healthcare who helped guide me along the way and support me in my career.

How do you support the community’s team and residents? I like to help make it feel like home. I listen to resident and team ideas and brainstorm to make things come to life. The motto “Love where you live and love where you work” is what I strive for, both for the residents and our team.

What aspect(s) of the job would surprise others? That I drive the bus!

Where do you find ideas/inspiration for activities? First and foremost, the residents. They enjoy trying new things so I enjoy brainstorming with other professionals, finding ideas from Pinterest and Instagram, and implementing them into our community.

What types of activities do your residents enjoy most? Our residents enjoy quilting class, trips (including virtual), tea parties and live entertainment.

Personal details: I have been married for 19 years and have a son and two Australian Shepard dogs. I enjoy boating, beaching and fishing with my family.

The Huntington Assisted Living

Devyn Hotop | Activity Director

The Huntington activity director Devyn Hotop.
Huntington activity director Devyn Hotop.

Years with Virginia Health Services: About two years. (I started as a CNA with VHS from the apprenticeship program.)

What drew you to a career in recreation services in senior living? During my time as a CAN, one of my favorite things to do was watch the residents engage in the various activities that were provided. I loved seeing the residents happy and I knew this position would be the perfect way to express my creativity while helping others!

How do you support the community’s team and residents? I am always helping out staff members whenever I can! I also make sure the residents know that I am here for them, and that my office is always open if they just want to hang out or want someone to talk to. 

What aspect(s) of the job would surprise others? The versatility of the job. I drive the bus, do manicures, lead exercises, referee games, teach crafts, host socials. There is a lot that goes into this job.

Where do you find ideas/inspiration for activities? I rely on Pinterest and Facebook groups to find inspiration. I am always finding unique and fun things to do with the residents. I also bring up activity ideas to residents to get their opinion on it, and I let them have the opportunity to make their own suggestions.

What types of activities do your residents enjoy most? They love activities that keep their minds busy. Bingo is the most popular, and they recently have taken to new card games I have introduced to them.

Personal details: I like to stay busy inside and outside of work! In my free time I like to thrift, paint, fish and visit parks with my adorable (and very spoiled) Australian Shepherd.

Coliseum Nursing and Rehabilitation Center

Shawntez Hill | Activity Director

Coliseum activity director Shawn Hill.
Coliseum activity director Shawn Hill.

I have been the activity director at Coliseum since June 2023, and I have been with VHS for two years starting in the CNA apprenticeship program. I always had a great passion for helping seniors because I started out in home health care in 2016 and worked with private clients over the years. That’s what make me join the team as a CNA in April 2022. I became the Apprentice of the Year and joined the recreational therapy team in November 2022.

We have a good time at Coliseum! I believe if you have breath and strength in your body, that’s all that counts! I always tell our residents to look at each day as if it’s a party and they love it. It keeps them going with a smile on their face. The most important activity is Bingo, they take that game very seriously and you better have their prize at the end or you won’t hear the end. It’s just a blessing to see how little things can make them happy.

Other things I do outside of work is an annual Back to School Drive (for the past seven years) and a holiday help drive at Christmas to help families in need. Thanks to Virginia Health Services for helping me the last two years; I greatly appreciate it. My goal is to let each resident live their best life and be happy with no regrets.

Aida Davila | Assistant Activity Director

Coliseum assistant activity director Aida Davila
Coliseum assistant activity director Aida Davila

I started my career as a recreation therapy assistant/supervisor at the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington in Maryland, where I worked for 6.5 years before transferring to front desk security. When I moved to Virginia to live with my mother younger sister passed away, recreation therapy was the career path I wanted to continue. I enjoy providing activities for the residents and fellow team members. I love to see the smiles on my residents’ faces when they enjoy a program. Our residents at Coliseum really enjoy the parties Shawn and I throw, trivia and “you be the judge.” It exercises their minds and often triggers nostalgic memories.

James River Nursing and Rehabilitation Center

Shawn Hanberry | Activity Director

James River activity director Shawn Hanberry.
James River activity director Shawn Hanberry.

Years with Virginia Health Services: 7 years, 9 months.

What drew you to a career in recreation services in senior living? My mother, a retired LPN who worked in long-term care for 35 years, encouraged me and I have been connected to it since my years of volunteering at Bayside of Poquoson and Dominion Village of Poquoson.

How do you support the community’s team and residents? Through respect, high energy and positive attitude.

What aspect(s) of the job would surprise others? The amount of charting that includes progress notes, care plans, participation records and various assessments.

Where do you find ideas/inspiration for activities? My residents and their ideas.

What types of activities do your residents enjoy most? Our residents enjoy Bingo, Jackpot, Car Racing, Main Street Market and parties.

Personal details: I am a native of the Peninsula, mainly in Poquoson where I grew up and currently live. I enjoy road trips, trying new foods and visiting historical places and towns.

Lancashire Nursing and Rehabilitation Center

Amber Watson | Activity Director

Lancashire activity director Amber Watson.
Lancashire activity director Amber Watson.

Years with Virginia Health Services: 1 year, 3 months.

What drew you to a career in recreation services in senior living? I have always had a big heart for the elderly. I became a CNA and worked private cases and in nursing homes for six years until the pandemic. At that time, I decided to stay home with my kids. When my kids returned to school, I returned to work, searching for activity director openings. I thought, “how cool and fun it would be to do fun things with the aging population and keep them active?”

How do you support the community’s team and residents? I love supporting my Team Members! I always lend a hand to my work family to help in any way, shape or form.

What aspect(s) of the job would surprise others? The amount of paperwork and daily charting.

Where do you find ideas/inspiration for activities? I have five kids and they love to help with activity ideas for the Residents. I also get ideas from activity connection, Pinterest, and from the Residents themselves.

What types of activities do your residents enjoy most? My residents are very hands on! Any activity that involves everyone having a good time, enjoying themselves, best believe they will be there. They really love arts and crafts, and socials.

Personal details: I am 31 years old. My husband and I have been together for almost 15 years and we have five beautiful kids (three girls and two boys, ages 2, 6, 8, 11 and 14). We have a 1-year old lab named Milo, who keeps us on our toes. We have lived in the Topping area for almost two years.

The Newport Nursing and Rehabilitation Center

Jamel DeCosta | Activity Director

The Newport activity director Jamel DeCosta

Years with Virginia Health Services: 3 years.

What drew you to a career in recreation services in senior living? I’ve always enjoyed the elderly. I guess it’s due to being raised by my grandmother.

How do you support the community’s team and residents? Pitching in where ever needed.

What aspect(s) of the job would surprise others? The relationships between the staff and residents.

What types of activities do your residents enjoy most? Bingo, painting and cornhole.

Where do you find ideas/inspiration for activities? Friends and family, especially my 10-year-old grandson.

Personal details: I am a mother of two and grandmother of four. I enjoy entertaining, crafting, decorating and shopping.

Northampton Nursing and Rehabilitation Center

Erica Donaldson | Activity Director

Northampton activity director Erica Donaldson started the position this month. She was a CNA at Northampton for 23 years.

Years with Virginia Health Services: 23 years (as a CNA until this transition to activity director in January).

What drew you to a career in recreation services in senior living? This is something different after my years as a CNA and an opportunity to challenge myself.

How do you support the community’s team and residents? I bring new ideas to the table.

What aspect(s) of the job would surprise others? More energetic to the facility for residents and team members.

Where do you find ideas/inspiration for activities? From former activity director Charlene Craig (now a Resident Navigator at Northampton), other team members and Pinterest.

What types of activities do your Residents enjoy most? Bingo, Get Fit class, and church.

Personal details: I have two sons (one who lives in Pittsburgh). I am a Steelers fan! I have four grandchildren and a new person in my life. I’m staying positive and enjoying life!

Walter Reed Nursing and Rehabilitation Center

Julie Boothe | Activity Director

Walter Reed activity director Julie Boothe
Walter Reed activity director Julie Boothe.

I have been in the activity field for 29 years and had the pleasure of spending those years with Virginia Health Services. I accepted a job after spending three years volunteering with a local elementary school. Thanks to having a caring soul, I feel right in to this career. I love outdoor activities of most kinds and taking care of my animals and pets at home. I am truly blessed to have my husband for 43 years, sons, daughter, mother, sisters, grandchildren and friends. They all mean the world to me.

Walter Reed has a fantastic volunteer base and community that helps meet the needs of our residents through the activity department. We provide daily activities for the residents and make sure they have the materials they need for independent activities. Our residents tell us what they like to do and we make it happen. This includes entertainment coming into the facility and us going out in the community.  We love all our volunteers. They are very special people.

Activity directors work 24/7. Many times, we have to drop what they are doing to attend to something else and pick up where we left off later. We definitely have to multitask and be very organized. A big part of the job is finding activities (which can pop in your head any time of the day), scheduling activities, individualizing a program for each resident and being there to listen when need be. A big thanks to my assistants for all their hard work and dedication. Activity and other staff build tight bonds with residents and care for them dearly.

Activity ideas come from a lot of places. The resident requests are the first, then we use Internet, TV, magazines and imagination. Activities are provided to give them the opportunity to have fun, laugh, feel good and fill their phyco-social needs. They love bingo, pet therapy, Wii games, church, bible studies, crafts, music, in the kitchen, outings and more. There is nothing like dunking your administrator in a dunk booth.  The residents had a blast.  Thank you for participating, Bryant. We have a great team here.

On a personal note, I wish to thanks all the staff, volunteers, and VHS growing with me for year to year. It takes a team to meet the needs of over 100 people. Thank you for your understanding, caring and support. Working here is not a job but an extended family.

Jennifer Caldwell | Assistant Activity Director

Walter Reed assistant activity director Jennifer Caldwell.
Walter Reed assistant activity director Jennifer Caldwell.

Years with Virginia Health Services: 1 year.

What drew you to a career in recreation services in senior living? I’ve always enjoyed the elderly, and being able to plan activities. Putting a smile on residents’ faces daily is something I knew I would be good at.

How do you support the community’s team and Residents?  By always being attentive to my residents and team.

What aspect(s) of the job would surprise others? The relationships between the residents and staff.

Where do you find ideas/inspiration for activities? Pinterest and Residents. I am always asking residents for suggestions – it might be something we have done before that they enjoyed or something new they want to do.

What types of activities do your Residents enjoy most? Bingo, music and any food activity. 

Personal details: I enjoy being with family, friends and going on vacations. I love going on cruises.

Stephanie Williams | Assistant Activity Director (Memory Care)

Walter Reed assistant activity director for memory care Stephanie Williams.
Walter Reed assistant activity director for memory care Stephanie Williams.

Years with Virginia Health Services: 1 year, 9 months.

What drew you to a career in recreation services in senior living? I started doing activities voluntarily at my previous job and thoroughly enjoyed working with the residents and seeing them enjoy it also.

How do you support the community’s team and Residents? I help anyway I can that they need.

What aspect(s) of the job would surprise others? Working on a memory care unit you have a wide range of cognitive abilities to balance out, especially to offer an activity that is inclusive. A lot of people don’t know how to deal with somebody with dementia or Alzheimer’s, and really it’s just a little patience and getting to see what their interests are.

Where do you find ideas/inspiration for activities? Research but also seeing what they like to do or new things that work. I can put together different activities based on those.

What types of activities do your Residents enjoy most? They like the physical activities but they also like to read and love to listen to music, and dance and sing.

Personal details: I enjoy coming in and spending the day with my residents every day. Outside of the busy work day I spend a lot of time with my family and three animals.

York Nursing and Rehabilitation Center

Mary Garrity | Activity Director

York activity director Mary Garrity
York activity director Mary Garrity.

Years with Virginia Health Services: 7 years (in March).

What drew you to a career in recreation services in long-term care? The elderly always had a place in my heart. I started my career at a senior center 20-plus years ago and have worked in several long-term facilities. I love to see the Residents happy and smiling, I love to challenge the residents with word games and trivia, and I love to see the residents dancing and singing.

How do you support the center’s team and residents? I support the team by helping wherever I can, having dress-down days, games and contests for the staff and Residents. We have become family and do whatever they need or want.

What aspect(s) of the job would surprise others? Of all the many hats we wear, we help by serving meals, getting water for the residents, being a good listener … all the little things that residents need, including decorating for Christmas and other holidays.

Where do you find ideas/inspiration for activities? From the residents’ likes and dislikes. Every facility is different and has different cultures. I use online resources like Activity Connection and share ideas with other activity professionals.

Personal details: I love going to the beach, reading, interior decorating and furniture restoration.

The Arbors Independent Living

Quianna | Life Enrichment Director

Years with Virginia Health Services: 1 year.

What drew you to a career in recreation services in senior living? I was always interested in being around seniors. It wasn’t until two years ago while I was in California, I was filling in for our activity director and I just thought her job was so fun and exciting. Being able to plan and execute daily activities for residents was definitely something I knew I would be great at doing.

How do you support the community’s team and residents? By always being attentive to my team and residents, and always being a team player.

Where do you find ideas/inspirations for activities? First and foremost, from my residents. If you just sit and talk with them for a little, you will discover a lot from them. I also get inspirations from Facebook groups and Pinterest.

What type of activities do your residents enjoy the most? My residents really enjoy crafting, painting, trivia and Bingo!

Personal details: Being an activity director and being able to implement programs on the calendar is more than just that. I am up close and personal with the residents. They confide in me and they count on me to do a great job in making their lives more enjoyable and fun. The bonds that I have created while being in this position is more than I could ask for. The smiles and joy on my residents’ faces after a program, the “thank you” and the “great job Quianna” makes everything I do worth it.

Help the team

Our activity directors are always in need of volunteers to assist with events and activities or provide entertainment and social interaction. Visit to submit a request to volunteer.

Assisted Living dining managers ready to pull out all the stops for the holidays

Residents and their families have the opportunity to share the holidays together thanks to the dining services teams at The Huntington and The Hamilton Assisted Living communities.

Hamilton’s Dining Services Manager Nicole Freeman and Huntington’s Dining Services Manager Annette Stringfield have listened to the Residents’ requests and are prepared to host traditional Thanksgiving dinners.

“We’re going to create a feast for them,” Nicole says. Family members were asked to RSVP if they were attending Thanksgiving lunch with their loved ones.

The Hamilton’s menu includes sliced turkey with gravy, collard greens, stuffing, candied yams, mac and cheese and glazed baked ham. The Huntington has a similar menu, adding turkey wings.

“They want traditional for Thanksgiving,” Nicole says. For Christmas, the Residents change up their wants. “Sometimes it’s lasagna, sometimes ham.”

And on New Year’s Day, the spread is consistent Nicole and Annette say: Pork (ham), collard greens, black-eyed peas and cornbread. At the Hamilton, you might be served fried chicken too.

The assisted living Residents always have their sweet tooth satisfied. At Hamilton, there will be pecan and pumpkin pies with whipped topping, and the Huntington will serve sweet potato pie.

“I love desserts. I love food, but especially the sweets,” Annette says.

“We try to create a home-like atmosphere,” she says, “especially for the holidays and incorporate items we don’t usually have on the regular menu throughout the year.”

The dietary and nursing teams ensures Residents on specific diets have something similar and don’t accidentally wind up with something they are unable to eat on their plate.

“We watch,” Nicole says. “We’re very careful.”

Party on

There also are holiday parties that will have special buffet-style spreads for families and Residents at both assisted living communities.

The Huntington, and Residents at adjoining The Newport Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, will have a dinner buffet that’s open to families and enjoy a performance from Scoundscapes on Dec. 14.

On Dec. 16, The Hamilton and adjoining York Nursing and Rehabilitation Center will have a party with heavy hors d’oeuvres with invited family.

Be our neighbor

Our assisted living communities provide a safe environment when you start to need extra assistance with your healthcare needs.

You and your loved ones will have peace of mind knowing our nursing team is available 24/7 and that your apartment is equipped with bathrooms designed for safety and ease, and a wander-guard system.

Visit us at to learn more about our communities and schedule a tour.

Residents of The Arbors share why they love calling it home

What happens when the rigors of homeownership become too much? For three women residents of The Arbors Independent Living, the answer was moving in.

Without having to worry about home and lawn maintenance, cooking and cleaning, or keeping up with too much space after children had moved out, residents at The Arbors are able to enjoy themselves.

We’re celebrating Joy Week this week and taking advantage of the events the team has planned. Get to know our residents and why they decided to call The Arbors home below.

No more yardwork!

Nancy Sandford knew keeping up with the landscaping in their Hampton home had become too much for her husband. She was ready to find a place to call home that didn’t require so much work. Nancy convinced him after he retired that it was time to downsize to something with less maintenance.

She and her husband moved into The Arbors the end of June 2020.

Her husband still gets to work with his hands outside, but to a manageable degree. He does the landscaping at The Arbors, planting flowers and caring for the hanging baskets and beds.

Bridge is Nancy Sandford’s favorite game and she has found several outlets to play it as an Arbors resident.
Moving to The Arbors

“When we came here, we stopped looking,” Nancy said.

It was small, attractive and the staff was warm and sincere.

“We found a home,” she said. “We love it and wouldn’t change a thing.”

The Sanfords feel safe and enjoy taking walks around Port Warwick. The location is ideal, Nancy said.

The staff is patient and caring, particularly when it comes to helping the aging population, she said.

Living in an apartment “can be isolating,” she said. “You can make it be as homey as you want by never leaving your apartment, but if you did that, you miss the wonderful people and activities here.”

Nancy praised activity director Ora Williams and Chef Akira Johnston on adding life and fun to The Arbors. The food is tasty and the activities keep Nancy going.

She plays in several bridge groups – it’s her favorite game – and while she doesn’t care for Bingo, she does enjoy the company and camaraderie of the people.

“The people are the best part. I can have as much privacy as I want,” she said.

Out of the house
Nancy Sandford retired from being a nurse before moving into The Arbors. She loved being a middle school nurse.

Nancy and her husband were married after college and moved to Hampton in 1959. They met in high school. She attended nursing school in Richmond and he was a student at Randolph-Macon before they married.

Her husband was an aerospace engineer for NASA Langley. While his role involved testing airplane aerodynamics in the wind tunnel, when he went to the gym in those early days on Langley’s campus, he would run into the Mercury 7 astronauts.

Nancy retired from being an RN. She ended her career as a nurse at a middle school, though she said her favorite job as a nurse was the newborn nursery. She worked part-time while raising her children.

Nancy and her husband have three sons and six grandchildren.

Joyce Belote knew she wanted to call The Arbors home once her 10-room home in Newport News became too much.

Ready to make the move

Joyce Belote became an Arbors resident in May 2018, a short while after her husband of 64 years passed away.

Two years before her husband passed away, Joyce already had the notion she was ready to move into something smaller with less maintenance. The 10-room home on the cul-de-sac was too big for the two of them with her children moved out (but still living nearby).

Her husband’s dementia and reluctance to move from where he was comfortable prevented her from taking the next step, but she had on the original visit scoped out the apartment view she wanted to have.

The week of her husband’s passing, that view became available and the Arbors team worked with her to reserve it as she went through the steps of handling the estate.

“I couldn’t be happier here. I have no complaints at all,” she says.

Her sons are within “five minutes of me” and her sister recently purchased a condo across Styron Square where when the leaves fall, they’ll be able to wave at one another from their windows.

Her sister is 17 years younger, “so I’ll have a driver should I stop being able to do that,” she says with a chuckle.

And she is so happy with the location. She didn’t want to look anywhere else when she decided to move into an independent living community because the Arbors is close to everything she wants, including her doctors, shopping and restaurants, and her family.

“The location is fantastic,” she says.


Joyce has a lot of interests and collectibles. She was a bridal consultant and keeps many dolls in wedding dresses, including one of Princess Diana, in a curio cabinet in her living room. Each of the dolls has a story and she has presented them to her peers at The Arbors during a “show and tell” in the past year.

Her kitchen is bright and cheery with a strong lemon theme.

“I didn’t start doing it until I moved here. My kitchen at my house was yellow. It had yellow cabinets,” she says. Now the color accents the space of her kitchen at The Arbors as a nod to her Maxwell Gardens home of 54 years.

Joyce has an entire bookshelf of scrapbooks. “I’m a picture freak,” she says. There are family photos and portraits all over the walls, and she loves the digital frame her family gave her where photos of the kids can be uploaded from any device.

She has four granddaughters and two great-grandchildren, including a two-month-old girl who Joyce knitted a blanket for. All of the grandchildren are in their 30s. The youngest she calls “a precious doll.”

Joyce is a big fan of Chef Akira’s food. “She is fabulous. We’re offered great meal options here. I eat very healthy here.”

She says she has a lot of dietary restrictions, but can always find something that satisfies them, and her, on the menu.

“Ora keeps us so busy we don’t know which way is up,” Joyce says of the activity director. “I go to everything that’s going on.”

She can be seen at happy hours, events and outings. Where you won’t find her is playing bridge or bingo. She loves the group she plays Mexican train dominoes with, however.

“Growing up strict Baptist, there weren’t any games. No cards unless it was Old Maid or something, so this was a change,” she says.

She also started the knitting group when she moved in. They meet on Wednesday afternoons and the dominoes group plays on Tuesday nights.

From the beginning

Joyce and her husband are from Newport News. She was a dental assistant before and after raising her children, and later worked as a bridal consultant and at the Village Stitchery in Hilton Village for 10 years until it closed. “I was still working there when I came here,” she says.

She still attends Temple Baptist, where she has been a member for 60 years, and participates in their groups. She hosts her Sunday school class occasionally at The Arbors, which caters the gathering.

Joyce grew up in the Wythe section of Hampton, graduating Hampton High School in 1953.

She met Donnie through a friend of a friend after a night out dancing at the Hampton Country Club. He was just out of the Air Force and attending William and Mary. They married in 1956 and “we were on a shoestring! I probably had as much space in that first apartment as I do now!” They were living on her salary while the GI Bill paid for Donnie’s schooling.

He became a mortgage banker and then a real estate appraiser. Despite adamantly not wanting to follow in their father’s footsteps, both sons are real estate appraisers as well.

“No one has moved from Virginia. I couldn’t keep them all in Newport News, but we’re all in the same state!”

They used to have a home in Nags Head, and now one of her sons purchased a home in Kitty Hawk, so they still are able to take advantage of going to the Outer Banks when the mood strikes.

Happy at home

“I wish more people would give the Arbors a chance,” she says. It really can have a community feel and it isn’t a place where people go to die, but to live, she says.

“This to me is just like being home,” she says. “I didn’t know anybody when I came here.”

When you move, “it’s a relief to your children.” Her sons were completely on board with her decision, and relieved to not have to worry about her living in a large house alone, concerned with its upkeep in and out.

Joyce has taken advantage of VHS Rehabilitation, which is right next door.

“They’ve got a fantastic crew there,” Joyce says. She was discharged after a knee replacement about two years ago and loved that rehab was “right here in the building.”

She says she will be 88 in January and is glad to still be driving. She knows when she no longer can, the transportation options at The Arbors are useful.

Carol Richardson’s passion for quilting is on display throughout her apartment.

Necessary move

Carol Richardson moved into The Arbors about 10 months ago because she says she knew she couldn’t live in her Newport News home from the 1970s.

“It wasn’t wheelchair accessible,” she says. No longer in a wheelchair, she still knew downsizing was the right move for her about four years after her husband’s passing.

Her children left her little choice. She moved into The Arbors after time in a rehabilitation facility where she got back on her feet following a broken leg.

Her son made the arrangements and moved in pieces of furniture, pictures and quilting supplies from her home of about 30 years.

She moved from a four-bedroom home to a studio.

“I made a move I needed to,” she says, adding that while it’s odd to be thankful for breaking her leg, the injury made her realize how necessary it was to downsize to something maintenance-free and accessible.

She was familiar with Port Warwick, but couldn’t place the location of The Arbors until she moved in. Now she takes advantage of the location and takes long walks, usually after dinner. She likes setting goals and has a goal of about 5,500 steps a day. Sometimes it’s more, sometimes it’s less, but she is happy to be moving.

“It’s a great place to walk,” she says.

“I can cook if I want, but I don’t have to. Noise hasn’t been an issue. Once I figured out the thermostat and adapted to my surroundings, I started to feel good,” she says. “I’m very easy going.”

Moving in

Carol says she has made some friends since moving into The Arbors. She says there is a good balance between maintaining privacy and socializing, being able to do as much or as little as she chooses.

“I like to stay busy,” she says.

She and friend Beverly, who recently moved in, eat together regularly. “She’s 92, and she just says things that make you laugh,” Carol says.

You can always find her enjoying events and outings. She participates in the crafting activities and enjoys starting the day with group exercise class.

“It starts my day off right,” she says.

She says The Arbors is starting to feel like home. She has even started to refer to it as such. She had to make some hard choices about what to bring and what to store or get rid of after selling her home.


Carol has a stack of her favorite quilts in a corner, with her most prized piece on the top. She says quilting “always has been my therapy,” but while she was caring for her husband at home the last year of his life, she never even walked into her sewing room. “I don’t know why,” she says.

Following his passing, she and her quilting guild worked on a beautiful piece of bright pinks against a dark backing.

“I’m glad I got my mojo back,” she says. “I’m an artist. I can’t draw worth a lick, but I create art with fabric and thread.”

She also is planning ahead. She’s made a box of eight quilts, one for each grandchild, that resides with her daughter in New Jersey. They are intended for her great-grandchildren when they come along.

Family life

Carol married her high school sweetheart Jimmy in 1967. They were married while she was still in school, and she says her mother let her move out after graduation. They started their family soon after, with a daughter and two sons. Carol has eight grandchildren and shares with pride all they’ve accomplished in their 14 to 26 years.

She was still in a wheelchair when one of her grandsons was playing in his last high school football game. She arranged transportation to Todd Stadium in Newport News.

“Grandma wasn’t going to miss her grandson’s last game,” she says. She’s looking forward to watching him play at Christopher Newport University. “My son already has my ticket.”

Her husband worked for NASA Langley for 36 years.

“He crashed airplanes for a living,” she says, recalling bringing the children to visit the Gantry while their father worked. (You can still see the Gantry on Langley’s campus driving out of Poquoson on Wythe Creek Road. They still crash planes there, too.)

Carol’s passion and interest has been sewing, which she learned how to do at age 9. She spent a good majority of her career after child-rearing in the costume departments of Busch Gardens and the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation.

“That was great fun. I got to make so many interesting costumes!” she says, sharing a few photos of costumes she worked on at Busch Gardens.

Call The Arbors home

With its ideal location and neighbors like Nancy, Joyce and Carol, why wouldn’t you want to call The Arbors home? Visit to explore our community, view floor plans and schedule a Taste & Tour, where lunch is on us. You also can call 757-933-2621 for information on services, rates and availability.

Food for thought: Diet can help slow advance of Alzheimer’s disease

Virginia Health Services Director of Dining and Nutrition Viki Reynolds is familiar with what dementia and Alzheimer’s disease can do to an individual and their family members.

VHS Director of Dining and Nutrition Viki Reynolds presents at The Arbors.
VHS Director of Dining and Nutrition Viki Reynolds presents at The Arbors on April 1, 2022.

During a Lunch & Learn sponsored by the Peninsula Agency on Aging at The Arbors Independent Living, Reynolds put up a family photo where at least five women in the photo have Alzheimer’s.

“This is something near and dear to me,” Reynolds told the group of about 30 in The Arbors dining room.

Alzheimer’s disease is the fifth leading cause of death in adults 65 and older, according to the CDC. Reynolds described it as the destruction of the connections between brain cells by plaque, or protein, buildup. It causes memory loss, and can eventually lead to loss of functions of daily life.

Keep your mind sharp

During her talk, Reynolds offered tips to “use your knife and fork to sharpen your mind.”

Maintaining a healthy diet, and incorporating specific foods, can help stave off Alzheimer’s, she said.

The talk was paired with a buffet lunch from Arbors Chef Akira Johnston and team that featured several of the foods mentioned, including wild rice pilaf (grains), turkey bruschetta and grilled chicken (poultry), spinach salad with blueberries and strawberries (leafy greens and berries), and seafood soup (fish).

Reynolds is a registered dietitian, one of four on the Virginia Health Services team. She oversees the dining and nutritional programs throughout VHS.

Ways Reynolds said you can feed your brain are through:

  • Exercise, such as taking a walk.
  • Keep mind active, like doing crossword puzzles or watching Jeopardy.
  • Diet, incorporating specific foods into your week that have antioxidants and Omega 3s.
Foods to include in a “Mind Diet” are oats, whole grain bread, tree nuts such as walnuts, blueberries and leafy greens.

“Mind Diet”

The diet for your mind should include foods in their truest form – such as fresh strawberries and blueberries – so you get the most from their health benefits.

With a basket of recommended foods at her side, Reynolds walked the audience through the “Mind Diet.”

  • Green vegetables: two servings per day is recommended. (“As a dietitian, I have to tell you, you need more than that,” she says.)
  • Dark, leafy greens: two servings per day. Includes kale, dark leafy green lettuce. A vegetable such as broccoli is good, but you need a larger serving to get the same benefits.
  • Berries: five servings (half cup) a week. “It’s best to eat them raw,” Reynolds said. That includes blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries. They have antioxidants that help reduce inflammation.
  • Dried beans: three servings per week. They contain Omega 3s, which “promote healthy brain function.”
  • Whole grains: three servings per day. Includes brown rice, whole grain breads, oats and whole grain cereals.
  • Poultry: two to three times a week. Grilled chicken, turkey, etc.
  • Salmon: one serving per week. High in Omega 3s, which work to “decrease protein clumps that might be happening in the brain.”
  • Olive oil: 2 tablespoons a day. Extra virgin olive oil is less processed and has the most health benefits. While it doesn’t have a low smoke point, which makes it not as good to cook with, it can be used in salad dressings for those dark, leafy green and berry salads.
  • Nuts: five times a week “is encouraged.” Any type of tree nuts, such as walnuts and pecans, are good. Peanuts, which grow in the ground, have fewer nutritional benefits, but when unprocessed are still OK. Oils in the nuts are high in Omega 3s and antioxidants.

Shopping and other tips

Reynolds shared several tips to help you feed your “mind diet.”

At the grocery store

  • “Keep your cart on the outside lanes of the grocery store,” she said. “That’s where you’ll find the fresh produce, fresh meat, even some of the frozen items on ends. Inside aisles have the less healthy items, like boxed and canned goods that can contain high levels of sugar and sodium.”
  • Read the packages before purchasing to check for the nutritional benefits.
  • You’ll get the most benefits out of whole food items. If they are canned, or otherwise altered, you’ll lose nutritional benefits such as fiber, beta carotene, etc.
  • Frozen fruits and vegetables are good alternatives to raw, as they are frozen at their peak and can keep longer than fresh produce.

Nutritional thinking

  • Talk to a physician about adding certain foods to your diet if you are concerned it will react poorly with a prescribed medication.
  • Try to avoid red meat, bacon, and other items high in sodium or fat.
  • Smoothies can limit nutritional value, but “if someone has a cognitive issue, transform the food however you can to get these items into their diet.”

While concentrating on diet can be helpful, and in early stages, can help back up damage to memory in later stages, Reynolds said.

Healthwise, “you can’t lose with following something like this,” she said.

New chef energizes kitchen at The Arbors

The new chef at The Arbors Independent Living vibrates energy.

She’ll be the first to tell you she can’t sit still – she is either moving or asleep. There is no turning it off.

Chef Akira Johnston brings that energy into the kitchen at The Arbors every day, creating daily specials to enhance the month’s regular menu items. She brings that energy to working with the team in the kitchen, perfecting systems, plating and consistency.

She brings that energy to the dining room, chatting with the Residents about what they like, dislike and what they would like to see coming from the kitchen.

“I am always full of energy,” she said. “I don’t stop.”

Work in senior living

Chef Akira Johnston spent five years at Williamsburg Landing before leading the team at The Arbors Independent Living.

Before joining The Arbors in January, Johnston spent five years at Williamsburg Landing.

She has experience in independent living, assisted living and helped prepare meals for the nursing home at The Landing by pureeing or chopping food, whatever needed to be done to meet a Resident’s feeding and dietary needs.

Johnston is health conscious, and not just because of the environments she has worked in.

“In my free time, I’m very conscious about what I eat, about what I put in my body,” she said. “I try to eat clean and healthy. I want to give fresh fish, fresh vegetables. … I weave (nutritional factors) in by considering my personal diet too. I wouldn’t serve (the Residents) something I wouldn’t eat.”

She also is conscious of portion control, and keeping the menus high quality and appealing.

“At the end of the day, they’re ordering from this menu, not me,” she said.

She has to offer healthy, tasty options. Some well-received menu items so far have been fresh fish, coconut Thai curry and a salmon cake.

Johnston said she gets ideas from the Residents.

“I like to come out to talk to the Residents,” she said. “This has been my favorite crowd of people. I like building these relationships (and hearing their stories).”

Chef’s palate

Johnston said she doesn’t spend her off time cooking – “I am much better at mass production than a meal for two” – but loves to dine out.

Close up of the curry dish with a plateau of rice in the middle of the sauce.
One of Chef Akira’s new menu items is a Thai Chicken Coconut Curry that has been well-received by Residents at The Arbors.

“I like going out to eat,” she said. “I like trying new restaurants to see what’s out there: concepts, menu names, flavor profiles.”

Her favorite cuisine is Japanese.

“I love sushi,” she said. She may incorporate hibachi-style vegetables or chicken in a menu for The Arbors.

She also said she loves fine dining, eating at restaurants such as Ruth Chris. And sandwiches. She’s a big fan of a Wawa sandwich or a meal at Paul’s Deli in the New Town area of Williamsburg.

One of her favorite spots in Newport News is down the street from The Arbors at Thaijindesu Thai and Sushi Bar.

She travels for food. Johnston said she took a trip to Philadelphia just to compare cheesesteaks. She travels frequently to San Francisco to visit family and eat.

She compiles her ideas on a whiteboard in her office at The Arbors, taking menu inspiration from the board often.

“When it hits me, it gets added to the board,” she said.

She also stays active in her spare time, running, exercising and going to hear live music.

Getting her start

Chef Akira Johnston and her team showcase the March specials in the lobby of The Arbors.

Johnston, 29, didn’t grow up wanting to be a chef. Growing up in Newport News, she attended Heritage High School, played sports and considered joining the military.

Life events took her in a different direction.

“I knew I liked food,” she said.

Johnston enrolled in the Culinary Institute of Virginia, earning her associate’s degree before joining the College Program at Walt Disney World.

What was supposed to be a three-month stint turned into several extensions that had her experience the culinary programs at Disney for a year.

She spent time at The Wave restaurant in The Contemporary Resort, the Coral Reef in EPCOT and working stations during the Food & Wine Festival.

The tasks were a little too repetitious for her – “I was too creative,” she said, to feel comfortable in the structure.

“I either had to take a full-time job there or come back home,” she said. “I wanted more. I didn’t want to stop myself right there. I came back here to finish school.”

She completed her bachelor’s degree with the Culinary Institute of Virginia.

Healthy lifestyle begins with ‘power-half hour’ of chair exercises

The Residents at The Arbors Independent Living are getting an assist in staying active.

VHS Rehabilitation tech Kim Kutscher leads a chair exercise class with a group of Residents daily in The Arbors community room.

“It’s a head-to-toe program with cardio,” she says. “A true power half-hour!”

Hamilton residents do leg lifts during chair exercise class

Hamilton residents do leg lifts during chair exercise class

Kutscher, who has been with Virginia Health Services for 17 years, also leads a class twice a week at The Hamilton Assisted Living in York County.

“It’s booming right now,” she said. “There’s quite a few who come to class on a regular basis.”

There are about 10 for Kutscher’s class at The Arbors on a recent weekday morning. Some arrive early to chat with her and get their pick of seats in the community room.

Kutscher said the benefit of group classes is a camaraderie develops among the participants. Some participants who have caregivers are sometimes assisted as they go through the exercises.

The Arbors Residents, since the COVID-19 pandemic began, hang onto their equipment: a theraband, ball and hand weights. Kutscher said some Residents use the equipment and exercise sheet she provides to continue their work on the weekends.

Residents at The Arbors lift an arm in the air with a hand weight.

Hand weights are a recent addition to chair exercise classes at The Arbors Independent Living.

If one-on-one therapy is needed, participants are encouraged to use VHS Rehab and VHS Home Health Care. Kutscher strictly provides group sessions, seeking the advice of VHS physical therapists about adding certain exercises to the program when needed.

She says that if someone is seated for long periods of time, even if they aren’t in class, they should focus on ankle and leg work “to keep them strengthening and prevent atrophy.” Muscles can get weak, making it difficult to move from a seated to a standing position.

Her class works from the feet up, all the way through finger movement, shoulder rolls and deep breaths to close out the class.

Long-time volunteers with Virginia Health Services find purpose in service

A near lifetime of community service for Martha and Jerry Dodson was put on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The contagion prevented the Dodsons from their usual rounds of facility-based volunteer activities, and for the most part suspended their annual 40-plus year tradition of being Santa and Mrs. Claus at nursing homes on the Peninsula.

The Dodsons are happy to be back into the swing of things again. It’s their most wonderful time of the year.

They have already presented gifts to Residents at The Newport, and have visits to The Huntington, The Hamilton and York on the books.

The Dodsons were some of the first volunteers back into Virginia Health Services’ facilities. They host crafts projects at The Huntington, resuming those visits in June.

Vaccinations, the use of PPE and changes to federal guidelines in regard to visitation in long-term care facilities have allowed VHS to welcome back volunteers.

Martha and Jerry Dodson

Martha and Jerry Dodson have volunteered at The Newport and Huntington for at least 10 years.

Volunteer hiatus

While the world paused, Martha said she “missed feeling like I had a purpose.” Jerry nodded along with the sentiment.

She tapped into her arts and crafts background and started creating greeting cards during the time away. Even while the distribution of them was on hold, she said she started to feel like she had a purpose again.

Martha and members from her recently created painting group and members of the Junior Women’s Club of Hilton Village – of which Jerry is an honorary member as well – created nearly 100 cards to share with Residents at the Huntington and other nursing facilities in the area.

Jerry Dodson speaks with a Resident

Jerry Dodson speaks to a Huntington Resident during craft time.

All of the VHS communities need volunteers to help with programs or to provide entertainment and fellowship to their Residents.

“Volunteering doesn’t mean you have to spend a lot of time or money,” Martha said.

There are all kinds of ways you can volunteer, whether it’s by creating a card, volunteering to help with a craft project, or making a phone call.

“We fill in the gaps,” Jerry said. “We had so many relatives – and that’s OK, we don’t have any children – because Residents thought we were family.”

Martha added, “You just develop relationships, connect with folks, you know?”

Long history of volunteering

The Dodsons have more than 40 years developing those connections on the Peninsula. In addition to their Santa and Mrs. Claus gigs, which take them to nursing homes from Williamsburg to York County, Newport News and Hampton, they have been hospital clowns and Jerry often visits as the Easter Bunny.

Martha Dodson does a craft with a resident at The Huntington

Martha Dodson and her husband Jerry resumed volunteering at The Huntington in June.

Martha and Jerry have volunteered at The Huntington and The Newport for at least 10 years. They also do deliveries with Meals on Wheels, Jerry tends the grounds and landscaping at their church, and Martha has spent several years volunteering with a first-grade class (when in session).

It’s a volunteer opportunity she landed as a result of the people she networked with while volunteering at The Huntington.

Before building access was restricted because of the pandemic, Martha hosted craft projects once a month at The Huntington, and, often, The Newport.

Jerry was on the original board for the Peninsula Agency on Aging (and still is on the membership board), and worked as a social worker and in Adult Protective Services for the City of Hampton before retiring.

Volunteering was ingrained in him at a young age. Jerry’s father was in Lions Club, and Jerry saw his parents volunteer at schools. The torch was passed, he said.

He and Martha met as members of the first four-year graduating class at Christopher Newport University in Newport News. That class celebrated its 50th anniversary over the summer.

The Dodsons encourage volunteering in a nursing and rehabilitation center.

“When (the Residents) have a visitor, it’s a bright spot during the day. And it might only be for 30 seconds,” Martha said.

The Residents appreciate having someone to talk to, Jerry said.

Volunteers needed

All of Virginia Health Services’ communities are rebuilding their volunteer programs.

Church and youth groups, school service organizations, Greek life and other college organizations, and individuals are needed to help facilitate activities and provide social interaction and support to Residents.

Applications are being accepted at all VHS facilities. Criminal background checks, PPD tests and proof of the COVID-19 vaccination are asked of those who volunteer in a building consistently more than 10 hours a week.

Contact the facility nearest you to apply and discuss options with the Activities team.

Volunteer locations

Coliseum Nursing and Rehabilitation Center

Address: 305 Marcella Road, Hampton, Virginia 23666

Phone: 757-827-8953

The Hamilton Assisted Living

Address: 113 Battle Road, Yorktown, Virginia 23692

Phone number: 757-243-8559

The Huntington Assisted Living

Address: 11143 Warwick Blvd., Newport News, Virginia 23601

Phone: 757-223-0888

James River Nursing and Rehabilitation Center

Address: 540 Aberthaw Ave., Newport News, Virginia 23601

Phone: 757-595-2273

Lancashire Nursing and Rehabilitation Center

Address: 287 School St., Kilmarnock, Virginia 22482

Phone: 804-435-1684

The Newport Nursing and Rehabilitation Center

Address: 11141 Warwick Blvd., Newport News, Virginia 23601

Phone: 757-595-3733

Northampton Nursing and Rehabilitation Center

Address: 1028 Topping Lane, Hampton, Virginia 23666

Phone: 757-826-4922

Walter Reed Nursing and Rehabilitation Center

Address: 7602 Meredith Drive, Gloucester Courthouse, Virginia 23061

Phone: 804-693-6503

York Nursing and Rehabilitation Center

Address: 113 Battle Road, Yorktown, Virginia 23692

Phone: 757-898-1491

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