Person of the Year: Glenda Forga, Executive Director of Lewis County Seniors

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Editor's Note: In past years, The Chronicle has chosen a single Person of the Year. This year, we selected two, with the second being fallen Washington State Patrol Trooper Justin Schaffer, who was honored posthumously. Additionally, our People of the Year special section is included with Saturday's edition of The Chronicle.  

Glenda Forga speaks matter-of-factly when talking about the struggles of the past several years, both for herself and Lewis County Seniors, the nonprofit she leads as executive director. 

Since 2013, she’s overcome breast cancer, a shattered kneecap, a broken wrist and a burned down house, not to mention the upheaval that came when Lewis County decided to remove the senior centers — where she has worked for 22 years — from its umbrella of full funding. 

Taken together, it would all be enough to knock most people to the ground — and keep them there. 

But not Forga. 

“There really is a silver lining for everything,” she said. “Everything happens for a reason, whether we like it or not.”

After making that statement in a recent interview with The Chronicle, she paused, then recalled sage advice from her husband, Jim, when she several years ago contemplated aloud whether she even wanted to pursue treatment for her cancer, which now appears to be in remission.

“He said, ‘There’s no way around it, so we have to go through it,’” Forga recalled. “And he was right.” 

That might as well be the slogan for Forga’s experiences in 2020, a year when she and her counterparts were forced to figure out a way to serve the same senior citizens who relied on regular visits to the county’s five senior centers before the pandemic with much-needed nutrition and services at home. 

She’s quick to point out that the successful solution that followed — meals delivered directly to the homes of seniors — would never have been possible without the help of her staff and community partners such as United Way of Lewis County Executive Director Debbie Cambell and Twin Transit’s Joe Clark. 

Others, though, are willing to provide Forga the credit she so often reserves for others. 

JP Anderson, Lewis County’s director of public health, calls Forga a “dynamic leader.” 

“When COVID hit, it was like, ‘what do we do,’” Anderson recalled. “The first thing that came to mind was seniors and their vulnerability and how we keep them safe … Glenda and her team sprung into action.” 

Last year, Lewis County Seniors delivered 157,000 emergency meals to around 600 seniors all across the county, providing much needed sustenance and nutrition to a segment of the population that has borne the brunt of the serious illnesses and deaths linked to the virus. 

It is for that reason, and others, that The Chronicle has selected Forga as its 2020 Person of the Year, joining a posthumous honor of the same name given to fallen Washington State Patrol Trooper Justin Schaffer (see the People of the Year special section included with this edition of The Chronicle).

 

Lewis County Native 

Forga was born in Aberdeen, but she has spent her entire life living in south Lewis County, where her family was among the original pioneers in the Toledo area. 

Her first involvement with the county’s senior centers came in 1999, when she started work at the Olequa Senior Center in Winlock, replacing Nita Daarud, who had held the position for 25 years. 

“I had huge shoes to fill,” she said. “But I hit the ground running.” 

She remained site manager until 2007, when she was promoted to the position of homebound meals coordinator, an experience that would take on more meaning and value 13 years later when the pandemic struck with full force. 

After a brief hiatus when the county contracted Catholic Community Services for the role, she returned to the position in 2013. 

That’s around the time when personal adversity began to strike in waves. 

She was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer. She shattered her kneecap and was confined to a wheelchair for six months. She broke her wrist. And to cap it all off, her house burned down. 

Just as she was recovered from that cocktail of catastrophes, word came out that Lewis County commissioners, faced with a budget crunch, had decided to no longer fully fund Lewis County’s senior centers. 

Facing backlash during a series of fiery public meetings, the county ultimately decided to offer additional but temporary funding, but the centers would need to be weaned off the county’s financial support and become a nonprofit. 

“They said ‘OK Glenda, put together a transition team and figure out what to do,’” she recalled. 

So, with the help of supporters and the staff of the senior centers, that’s just what she did. 

Several years later, she’s quick to bring up that silver lining adage again. 

Without the broken knee, her staff wouldn’t have learned how to carry out some of her duties, she notes. 

Without being forced off county funding, the senior centers wouldn’t have the independence and flexibility they enjoy today, she added. 

Oh, and the pandemic? 

“We have even found the silver lining in this COVID,” she said. “We have found so many seniors out there who really needed our help who weren’t getting help before all this.”

 

Pandemic Arrives 

Forga recalls the tumultuous days of March 2020 when everyone, not just the senior centers, were figuring out how they would operate in a newly viral landscape. 

It was March 13 when she arranged a conference call — Zoom had not yet become popular — with all five Lewis County Seniors sites. Everything had been shut down, but there was one key piece of the program that could not, in Forga’s mind, be halted. 

“We have to figure out how to get food out to the people,” she recalled saying. 

She and her crew worked for 14 days straight, preparing meals that were first picked up by seniors and later delivered directly to their doorsteps. 

Forga recalls meeting with the county commissioners to outline the difficult task of getting the nutrition to seniors. 

Clark, of Twin Transit, offered to deliver them. Campbell, of United Way, offered to handle the finances involved.  

Valuable partnerships emerged swiftly, with the Chehalis School District offering kitchen space early on and others providing volunteer hours and support. 

“Every time we’ve needed something, we’ve just had to figure it out,” Forga said. “You find that out as you’re doing it.”

That’s not to say it has been easy. 

While Lewis County Seniors have found a groove, there were many times when frustration would get the best of her, she admits.

“I’ve cried myself silly on the way home,” Forga said. “Because I just feel a little overwhelmed. Then I just pull up my boot straps and keep going, because if my staff is working so hard, I don’t have a right to feel like that.”

 

Looking Back

Forga says she isn’t 100% sure why she gravitated to serving senior citizens as a career, but she has a decent idea. 

Her father was a veteran of World War II, so her parents were actively involved in Winlock’s American Legion post, along with other similar organizations.

As a little girl, she would join her parents in visiting the VA hospital in Vancouver three or four times a year. She would pour coffee and provide cookies to the older patients, as others played music for the veterans and otherwise entertained them. 

The memory elicits a few tears for Forga, who said in many ways she believes she works hard for seniors so that her mother will know she’s still there, still working to serve the vulnerable and often overlooked population. 

“I’m not sure if that’s where it came from,” she said, crying. “But I can’t turn it off.” 

Forga was particularly irked by recent comments from Gov. Jay Inslee, who suggested seniors looking to acquire the COVID-19 vaccine rely on friends and family to help them reach the resource. 

After 22 years, she knows something many on the outside likely do not. 

“Resources are limited, their ability to get out there is limited,” she said. “Some are recluses, but they are still our people and we need to take care of them … When I was homebound coordinator, it would shock you how many people don’t have kids or family.”

Forga hopes Lewis County Seniors can ultimately have a key role in delivering information about the vaccine to seniors, or perhaps even the vaccine itself. 

 

Moving Forward 

These days, Forga and her team and partners have developed a rhythm, though funding is always a reason for concern. Fortunately, government grants and support have up until now kept the herculean effort of feeding the county’s seniors afloat, but the budgetary tight-rope walk is never really over. 

Forga is working on a bachelor’s degree in business management with an emphasis in human resources, and she hopes to complete it by the end of the year. 

She has two children, including Dan Whisler, 38, who has a son, Jaxson, and her daughter Mandie, 35, and husband Jake Flora, who have a little girl named Adeline.

She also provides a lot of credit for her success to her husband of 33 years, Jim. 

Ultimately, she’s uncomfortable accepting full credit for the success of Lewis County Seniors, both as an increasingly independent nonprofit and a lifeline for the community’s senior citizens. 

She always directs that back to her staff.

“If I told them all tomorrow that it was over and I couldn’t pay them, but that I was going to continue to work, every single one of them would have been in here with me,” she said. 

How to Donate

Lewis County Seniors is always looking for financial support for the nonprofit.

“We still have to actively reach out for money and we have to actively look for sponsors,” Executive Director Glenda Forga said. “My staff still isn’t able to be at their locations and have their fundraisers.”

Checks can be mailed to Lewis County Seniors at 2545 North National Ave., Chehalis, WA, 98532. There’s also a donation link on the Lewis County Seniors Facebook page and at lewiscountyseniors.org.