Toni Straka: The 50-year Volunteer


July 8, 1961. That was when today's Auxiliary president began volunteering at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital.


Toni Saadi, a new kindergarten teacher at Garfield School on Padre Street (today's Schott Center), was off for the summer. She'd recently been introduced to the hospital because part of the school's curriculum encouraged teachers to learn more about their community. The hospital's main entrance at the time faced onto Pueblo Street. So Toni had walked her class of 18 students up the street for a hospital tour. And she loved the connection.


Now, with school out, Toni wanted to maintain that link. Thus began her extraordinary 50 years of volunteer service to the hospital. They began at the information desk in the main lobby, moving to the surgery information area where Toni today still continues to act as a liaison between the

Auxiliary President Toni Straka

operating room staff and the families of patients undergoing surgery. She has also delved into pediatrics, helped out with community health fairs and events, become involved in Spiritual Care, and for the last six years has been available as a docent and tour leader. Her leadership skills have seen her elected president of the Auxiliary not once, but twice: in 2003/2004 and now as the current president, helping to guide Auxiliary members through the complex preparation of moving into the new Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital.


During those initial years, Toni continued to volunteer on Sunday afternoons during the school term. She met her future husband, Bill Straka, also a teacher at Garfield. The couple married in 1964 and had two sons, Todd and Matt. Toni then retired from teaching to raise their boys, but continued volunteering on Wednesday afternoons, trading babysitting with other moms she knew. "I felt it was important to keep the contacts at the hospital," she acknowledges, "and I needed to have adult contact!"


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Well-known throughout the community, Toni's other major involvement has been with First United Methodist Church on Anapamu Street. She served as the education director for the Sunday School programs for 20 years, and has a long history of coordinating weddings and events at the church.


More recently, her outreach activities have extended to the Prime Time Band, a weekly gathering of concert band lovers aged 50+. Husband Bill was in at the beginning of the informal gathering more than 16 years ago, with Toni subsequently joining the group and today playing the timpani and other percussion while serving as the official band manager.


Fifty years later, how does this feisty lady maintain her enthusiasm and drive? Director of volunteer services Patricia Dooley asks the same question. "She's so full of energy. It's like she's beginning her first year."


Adds Steve Warner, president elect of the Auxiliary, "Santa Barbara is a better place because of Toni."


"There's no question that you get more back than you give," Toni says about volunteering. "If I can help somebody's day be better, that's great. And there's always someone thankful that you came to work that day. It makes a difference."


Toni is among those eagerly awaiting the transition to the new hospital. "The surgical waiting rooms are going to be really great," she promises, aware that families often need to stay there for two, three hours or more while their loved one is in the operating room. "We've made such progress over the years with how we treat our visitors and patients. One Napa family told me recently that other hospitals don't compare. We get frequent comments about our cleanliness and friendliness and the fact that someone actually picks up the phone when you call the hospital. The Cottage philosophy of putting patients first really makes a big difference."


Fifty years later, there's no talk of retirement for Toni. She recently added caregiver to her roster of du- ties when husband Bill suffered a stroke, but he's recovering well with the support of all those he's grown to know at Cottage through the years. "We continue to meet staff in the hospital who say they were one of Bill's students years ago. It really feels like family."


Toni also likes to point out to that family, five decades after she first visited SBCH, that the entrance to the new hospital will face onto Pueblo Street once again.



By Janet O'Neill | Photo By Glenn Dubock


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