Senior citizens who want to grow old safely will have a better chance of doing that if they live near someone like Kathi Toepel. As director of senior services for the Mother Lode Office of Catholic Charities, Toepel is a fierce advocate for seniors in nursing homes and those who wish to continue to reside at home with dignity and independence.

“Older adults are too often isolated, lonely and depressed, especially when they live in rural communities,” said Toepel, whose charity serves four rural counties, including Tuolumne and Calaveras in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. In that region, seniors who need specialized medical care must drive at least two hours to the nearest city. “Once they lose their driver’s licenses, they are often stuck at home. So we reach out and try to feed their spirits,” she said.

One of  Toepel’s programs connects isolated seniors with volunteers who visit regularly and provide transportation and activities. It also offers support to caregivers, along with social services and counseling. She has helped develop services to treat depression and prevent suicide. In the past three years, her Outreach and Engagement Program has assisted more than 700 older adults, and her In-Home Counseling Program has kept many elders from being re-admitted to hospitals.

For her passion, empathy, and dedication, Toepel has been named one of 10 recipients of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Community Health Leaders Award for 2012. The award honors exceptional men and women who have overcome significant obstacles to tackle some of the most challenging health and health care problems facing their communities. Toepel will receive the award during a ceremony in San Antonio on October 17.

Toepel has been persistent in convening local professionals, law enforcement, and operators of long-term care facilities to reduce elder abuse, over-medication, and law-enforcement interventions through collaboration. She also has expanded the understanding of each agency's role, limitations, and strengths.

In addition to this “day job,” Toepel is trying to bring about policy changes that will help older adults who live in long-term care facilities. And she is not afraid to speak up and against systems that harm her community.

“When long-term care facilities are short-staffed, they are more inclined to medicate their residents,” Toepel said. “Staffing requirements at assisted living facilities are very minimal. California requires that facilities with 16 to 100 residents have one employee on premises and another employee on call, able to respond within 10 minutes on the graveyard shift.

I understand they’re trying to run a business, but  let’s make sure resident needs are being met.”

Janice Ford Griffin, national program director of Community Health Leaders, said the selection committee honored Toepel for her fierce and determined advocacy on behalf of the seniors living in California’s Mother Lode area, the central and northeastern section of the state famed for the mineral deposits and gold mines found there in the 1800s. “Kathi harnesses a unique combination of empathy, respect, and energy to actively assure quality of life for seniors as today’s society imposes tumultuous changes on our families and institutions,” Griffin said.

Toepel’s commitment to her work is also evident in her personal life. She was initially drawn to advocacy for older adults after eight years of caring for her aging foster father. Her work inspires everyone around her, both inside and outside her home.  Even her husband is one of her dedicated volunteers. He “fixes whatever needs to be fixed” in the homes of the seniors. ”I feel like we have succeeded when we’re able to put companionship and community back into the lives of older adults,” she said.

Anne Robin, behavioral health director and alcohol and drug abuse administrator of Butte County, said, “While program and system changes are sufficient reasons to recognize Kathi for her efforts, her true passion and empathy for those who are suffering or in need is truly exceptional. Her dedication has been shown by countless hours of work beyond the scope of ‘normal business hours.’ She is fearless in challenging the way things have been done and in suggesting real and practical solutions to problems that have seemed overwhelming to others.”

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has honored more than 200 Community Health Leaders since 1993. The work of the nine other 2012 recipients includes culturally appropriate care for Native Alaskan elders; a community initiative to reduce opioid abuse and drug overdoses in Wilkes County, N.C.; an outreach program to prevent and treat cancer among medically underserved populations in South Carolina’s Low Country region; an initiative to connect refugees to mental health services in Seattle; a free health care clinic for the working poor in Little Rock, Ark.; a breast cancer awareness and treatment program for African immigrants in the Washington, D.C., area; support services for Latino survivors of sexual violence in Philadelphia; a project to promote healthy lifestyles and working conditions for immigrant workers in Los Angeles, and an initiative to prevent childhood obesity in Garfield, N.J.

For details on how to submit a nomination, including eligibility requirements and selection criteria, visit

Kathi Toepel

Kathi Toepel

Director of Senior Services for the Mother Lode Office of Catholic Charities – Diocese of Stockton, Sonora, Calif.