A gift for the governor and a ray of hope in a financial struggle | NevadaAppeal.com

A gift for the governor and a ray of hope in a financial struggle

Barry Ginter

Helen Szerbiak and Gov. Kenny Guinn look through a photo album she compiled documenting construction of the freeway.

This week, Helen Szerbiak went to the governor’s office to drop off a gift for Kenny Guinn she’d been working on for years. When she left about a half hour later, she was carrying two presents from him, and what she hopes will be a third worth thousands of dollars and a little peace of mind.

Helen is 80 years old, but she acts and lives much younger. Part of that is because she has a naturally positive outlook on life, even under circumstances most people would consider decidedly negative. She keeps busy on several projects, including the photo album she gave to the governor documenting the construction of the freeway, which is in plain sight of her double-wide trailer. It contains photos of the first bulldozer all the way through the grand opening when she walked its entire length.

When she finally had the album compiled and ready to give to Gov. Guinn, a man she admires greatly, she went to the mansion on Halloween and wriggled her way up the trick-or-treating line. She tapped him on the shoulder and asked if he remembered her from previous brief encounters when she’d told him about the photo project. He did, and two days later she was in his office officially presenting him the photo album.

To show his gratitude, he gave her a photo book of Nevada scenery and a commemorative coin. After they talked and he learned about her biggest worry, he gave her something else, a pamphlet describing the Nevada Senior Prescription Program.

Helen has a $3,216 bill on her dining room table for prescription drugs, and she knows there will be more coming. That and the other costs of living are why she still goes to a job at an age when many people are in their second decade of retirement.

So does, Al Bertone, 77, (her boyfriend, as she describes him), even though his lungs are failing and he is on oxygen. He works 32 hours a week at the El Dorado in Reno, but his health may force him to quit soon.

When that happens, Helen said, she’ll start working five days a week to pay the bills. Social Security doesn’t stretch far enough to cover the drugs he requires.

“When this hit, it hit us like a rock,” she said of the cost of the prescriptions.

On occasion, they’ve had to borrow money to get by.

Helen works at Evergreen of Carson City, a nursing home, as a dietary aide. She loves her job and the people she helps each day as she serves lunches, pushes wheelchairs or just keeps everyone in a good mood (her nickname is “Sunshine”). She volunteered there even before they offered to pay her.

But she never thought she’d be living paycheck to paycheck at this stage of her life.

“I keep saying to myself, ‘I’m 80 years old … I should be out golfing or bowling.'”

Helen has had plenty of tough breaks in her life, but for the most part she’s had good health. Even today, she wears high heel shoes to work and has little problem pushing those wheelchairs around. She spent eight hours raking leaves this week.

With the help of a close friend, LaVonne Frost, Al is applying for the prescription program the governor recommended, which is funded by tobacco settlement funds. If he meets the eligibility requirements, it could provide up to $5,100 in benefits each year. That would help with the bills, but it won’t mean they’ll be able to retire.

LaVonne, who became a close friend of Helen’s after serving as her real estate agent 16 years ago, said the application process for the prescription drug program is bewildering even for her, and she suspects many seniors are unable to cope with the paperwork. She knows there are many who need the help, however. She meets them in her work as a real estate agent and when she volunteers in the community.

Even though she’s amazed at the non-stop schedule Helen keeps, not just at work but helping her neighbors, LaVonne wishes her friend could retire and find freedom from worry.

“It’s very sad to think that somebody that age has to work to get by.”

• Barry Ginter is the editor of the Appeal. Contact him at bginter@nevadaappeal.com or 881-1221.