In 1975, Pearlbea Labier was just 24 years old and a recent Masters of Social Work graduate from Catholic University when she noticed an advertisement in a newsletter.
A new organization called Iona House was looking for its first Executive Director. Although the position was unpaid, Pearlbea enthusiastically accepted the opportunity and its responsibilities.
“It was a real challenge in the beginning,” she remembers. Iona’s focus had yet to be determined, and there was no funding for programs.
At first, Iona supporters wanted the organization to focus on mental health. But after conducting door-to-door canvassing and learning that Ward 3 had
the highest number of older adults in the District, Pearlbea made a strategic decision. “I realized that there were a lot of older people in the neighborhood, and that was where we needed to focus,” she says.
Pearlbea developed Iona’s first programs with the help of volunteers, including friendly visiting, Telefriends (a daily safety-check phone call), and a Widow to Widow program. Over time, Iona added a recreation program and many more classes and events.
“At the time, the landscape for providing services to the elderly population was totally open,” Pearlbea says. “I had carte blanche to be creative and come up with ideas for programs.”
One of the critical early moments in Pearlbea’s 15-year tenure was securing funding from the DC government. “That was a major accomplishment,” she recalls. “I knew that with public funding, Iona would be a lead
agency with funding for services.”
In 1990, Pearlbea left Iona to create assisted living communities for individuals with memory loss. But she is proud of her legacy and where the organization stands today.
“It’s very impressive how far Iona has come in terms of community and responding to needs,” she says. “To this day, there is still a need for many of the programs we created over 40 years ago.”