Marina Quijano is independent and headstrong. She is also humble and generous.
Marina left her native Colombia in 1949 in the midst of that country’s bloody civil war to join her parents in Washington, DC.
“In Colombia, she was never expected to work,” says her brother Peter, a New York-based attorney. She was expected to get married and raise a family.
But Marina had an independent streak. Instead of a more traditional role, she landed a job in the District with a local real estate company. She threw herself into her career and rose to a management position. She never married or had children. Her colleagues became a second family. In 2011, she retired at age 84.
Now 90, Marina still goes to “work.” But instead of going to an office, she goes to Iona’s Wellness & Arts Center, an adult day program for older adults with dementia, Parkinson’s Disease, and other chronic conditions.
“She’s worked for 60 years,” says Peter. “It’s what she knows how to do. Iona provides something no one else can: a safe and supportive place where Marina has a sense of self-worth. That’s something all of us want—no matter how old we are.” In addition, Peter says, it gives him peace of mind to know she is in a safe, supportive environment. At Iona, Marina dresses the same way she did when she went to the office, always with a purse to complete the outfit.
“I’ve seen a real change in my sister since she started at Iona,” says Peter. “Once again, she has a purpose. I noticed it almost immediately after she…I was about to say ‘started working there.’”
“Marina likes to feel needed,” adds Sharon O’Connor, director of the Wellness & Arts Center. “She is happiest when she is doing something helpful. So we put her to ‘work.’”
Marina helps “lead” exercise classes and clears the tables after lunch. In addition, since Marina was trained in Colombia as a classical singer, the staff frequently invites her to share a song. She recently performed the national anthem at Iona’s Celebration of Achievement, an annual Wellness & Arts Center program that recognizes participants’ accomplishments.
“We talk about a strength-based program,” says Sharon. “What that means is we figure out what makes people tick, what brings them joy. We figured out right away what brings Marina joy: helping people.”
“Every time I step foot in this place it’s like stepping foot in heaven. I do this work with all my heart,” says Marina.