Retired labor lawyer devotes time to isolated older peers

Retired labor lawyer devotes time to isolated older peers

Lawyer-turned-human resources expert Cherry Ricafrente (second from left) gets special honors for 10 years of volunteer services from Tessie Madrinan, Susan Houston and Ann Blick Hamer. INQUIRER/Cherie M. Querol Moreno

DALY CITY, California — What does a labor lawyer from the Philippines do when she arrives in the United States to retire?   She doesn’t.  She reinvents herself.

That’s what Cherry Ricafrente did when she became a new American a few decades ago.


She was contemplating the end of her career, perhaps work part-time, spend her life’s next season away from litigious situations.  Been there, done that, she thought about the prospects of legal drama in this country.

Experience had sharpened her communication, interpersonal and organizational skills.  She had budget management experience. And, of course, she had fundamental knowledge of labor law, which protects workers from employer abuse, whether based on Philippine or California statutes.

Fate had other plans for Ricafrente, whose resume qualified her for employment at Coopers and Lybrand, the company that later became PriceWaterhouseCoopers, a global network of firms offering assurance, tax, and consulting services.  Her understanding of labor law, which covers discrimination, minimum wage, workplace safety and health laws, workers’ compensation and child labor laws, tailored her for her next milieu–human resources.  By thetime she decided to clock out for good, she was HR Director of the Sisters of Mercy in Burlingame.

Coaching people

Others might see retirement as the path to idyllic idleness, but not the San Mateo County resident with a penchant for coaching people out of dilemmas.

Ricafrente soon signed up as a volunteer peer counselor at Peninsula Family Service, a nonprofit with programs for underserved children and adults in San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties.


Powered by volunteers, its senior peer counseling program aims to build connections and help the isolated thrive in the community.  Volunteers undergo some 36 hours of training before reaching out to clients and participants under the supervision of a licensed clinical therapist.

Ricafrente completed her training in 2009 and has been meeting one-on-one with clients, as support agencies refer to those they serve.  She had nine clients in her first year.

“Generally, just lending compassionate presence to seniors in need of adult companionship and conversation” is what she does, Ricafrente simplifies what has been her calling for the past 10 years.  The work is actually more complex because active listening is harder done than said, as are learning how to use the “I statements” and keeping opinions to one’s self.


Filipino Peer Counseling Program coordinator Tessie Madrinan (far right, standing) thanks  Filipino peer volunteers (from left, seated) Visie Millares and Ruth Roque; (from left, standing) Shirley Buena, Luisito Arzaga, Cherry Ricafrente, Ofie Albrecht, Dolores Fierro and Levinia Espinas. INQUIRER/Cherie M. Querol Moreno

The program summoned Ricafrente’s best traits and honed her skills as she guided clients with physical challenges and frail health.  She was particularly concerned by a client who “was recovering and extremely depressed from a failed attempt at taking her own life.”

Each experience gives Ricafrente a deep sense of fulfillment.

Much gratification

“Walking someone through traumatic experiences with a then-physically abusive spouse” or “helping someone cope with dealing with a husband diagnosed with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s Disease” brings her as much gratification as advising a worker to resolve a matter with his employer, a scenario from her previous life.

“Cherry’s perseverance is impressive,” said Tessie Madrinan, who coordinates the PFS Filipino Peer Counseling program.

“Recently she would not rest because she hadn’t heard from a 92-year-old client.  She wanted to make sure her client was not in a precarious situation.  When she finally found out that her client was well and had been spending time with visiting relatives, she expressed profound relief, reflecting genuine concern and compassion.”

When days are shorter and Christmas carols fill the airwaves, most folks get giddy with excitement for the season of merry.  For vulnerable populations, however, the end of the year can have the opposite impact as it reminds them of what they do not have.

Older adults who are isolated are among the hardest hit by melancholy.   Organizations like PFS help lift them from loneliness with caring volunteers like Ricafrente and her fellow peer counselors.

Center stage

Peer Counseling Manager Ann Blick Hamer, LCSW, called the volunteers to center stage at the agency’s recognition event Dec. 10 in scenic Coyote Point in San Mateo, with Ricafrente the lone recipient of honors for having served 10 years to date.

Now in its 69th year of strengthening families and individuals, PFS brass praised the diverse pool of about 100 volunteers serving the Filipino, Latino, Chinese, LGBTQ+ and mainstream communities.

CEO Heather Cleary hailed them for having “dedicated countless hours of training and coordination” to accomplish “remarkable outcomes.”

Susan Houston, vice president for Older Adult Services, complimented their effort to learn “how to listen with your hearts and not make judgments, researching community resources and getting clinical supervision.”

She echoed participants’ glowing reviews of this year’s interaction with the 137 peer counselors.  The 2018-2019 survey showed nearly 100 % of the 804 persons counseled in individual or group setting called the program “very valuable” because the counselors “always feel supported,” helped them “a lot to deal with grief,” and would “very likely” recommend the program to a peer or family member.

Positive difference

“Truly, volunteer peer counselors have made a positive difference in the lives of our participants, so bravo to all of you,” said Houston, who joined the agency 35 years ago.  In 2008 PFS took over the peer counseling program, which was launched 32 years ago by San Mateo County Behavioral Health & Recovery Services.

This year alone, volunteers dedicated 7,339 hours of peer counseling to 17 support groups at 12 sites including Lincoln Park Community Center in Daly City, Senior Coastsiders in Half Moon Bay, the Pride Center in San Mateo County and San Carlos Adult Activity Center, and Menlo Park Senior Center.

The volunteers shared their motivation for signing up:  To “contribute to improving lives.”

Every day 10,000 people in the United States celebrate their 65th birthday, a trend that will continue until 2030, when the last of the so-called Baby Boomers reach that age when they are eligible for more benefits.

The growing number of senior citizens is good news to advocates for older adults who envision public and private institutions paying more attention to both their unique needs and capacities.  Once called “Silver Tsunami,” the rising wave is now referred to by Scott McMullin, immediate past chair of the San Mateo County Commission on Aging, as “Silver Reservoir.”  Because people 55 and older are a new resource to and therefore assets to their communities.

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TAGS: Aging, Cherry Ricafrente, Peninsula Family Service senior peer counseling, retirement, volunteering
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