Pleasanton Weekly

Column - June 3, 2011

After helping thousands, Hope Hospice's leader retires

by Jeb Bing

Helen Meier will retire next Friday from a career that has served thousands of those in need over the last 48 years, including the last nine as executive director of Hope Hospice. Her work has included managing homeless programs in San Francisco, Tri-Valley Haven for battered women and their children in the Tri-Valley, and most recently expanding the work of the hospice organization that provides end-of-life compassionate care and, just as important, grief counseling and ongoing support for those who are left behind. In between, she found time to work with the United Cerebral Palsy Association in San Francisco, researching and then helping San Francisco mass transit to develop buses with special lifts to accommodate the disabled. Her book, "Accessible Transit in the U.S. from 1970-1980," has provided guidelines for transit systems throughout the country.

Meier graduated from the State University of New York's Oneonta campus with a degree in education, determined to be a teacher. But marriage and a move to Costa Rica to work for the next six years with an interdenominational mission group changed that, as well as her career interests. Her two children -- Wayne, a school teacher, and Cynthia, a lieutenant with the San Francisco Fire Department -- were born there. Once back stateside, Meier became director of a small nonprofit, the Health of San Quentin, staffing a visitors' booth outside the prison walls where she arranged for transportation and lunch for those visiting the prison. That's where she also became a vocal advocate for improving prison conditions and medical care, which she found appalling at the time. Later she joined the United Cerebral Palsy group where she worked with the San Francisco Municipal Railroad on ways to provide access for the disabled. Up to then, she recalls, if you were in a wheelchair or couldn't climb the stairs, you couldn't use public transportation.

Meier moved to Livermore in 1985 to become director of Tri-Valley Haven, a job she held for 12 years. The Haven had challenges similar to bus access for the disabled; until she arrived, the Tri-Valley had no domestic violence shelter. Later, she worked briefly as director of development for the Valley Community Health Center, which is now Axis Community Health, raising $1 million in contributions at a time when the center's entire budget was $4 million. Then it was back to San Francisco where she was asked to head Compass Community Services, a program the helps the homeless. She established a homeless shelter in the Tenderloin district, which today accommodates homeless families including 72 infants and toddlers who are registered there this spring.

Hope Hospice, as with so many programs she's touched, was a 12-year-old organization when she was hired as executive director. Its budget then was less than $2 million and it has grown to $7 million this year. Its service along the I-580/I-680 corridor has tripled in that same period of time with a staff of 60 doctors, nurses and others in expanded facilities in Dublin. Her experience in individual care and service fit well into the needs of Hope Hospice, whose mission is to help people face their mortality and help them stay comfortable and as close to their families as possible. Hospice care enables those with terminal illnesses to stay in their homes with trained volunteers coming to relieve caregivers for a few hours to shop and rest. This week, Hope Hospice was caring for 70 patients.

Meier's office is filled with letters of appreciation. "You not only concentrate on the patient but you bring to the entire family tender, loving care," writes one Hospice family member. "The support you provided with your guidance and good nature was like a blanket of comfort during one of the most emotionally challenging times of my life," writes another. Wrote Sue Ellen: "My mother spent the last seven months of her life being helped by two other hospices, but you were the one with the compassion and concern for her existence. When you came into our lives, you offered nothing but help, friendship, and ultimate care and concern."

For Meier, these are messages she'll take home next week when a remarkable career comes to an end.

Editor's note: For more about Hope Hospice, call the organization's 24-hour information line at 829-8770, or visit the service's headquarters at 6377 Clarke Ave., Dublin.

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