Connie Yuen takes path from server to ED at St. Paul’s Towers

Connie Yuen, St. Paul’s Towers’ new Executive Director, says she was destined to be part of the community. “When my parents first started dating, they had a little picnic at Lake Merritt and took the photo, and in the background is actually a picture of St. Paul’s Towers.” But when she applied for her first job at the Towers while still in high school, she thought it was only going to be for the summer.

“I applied not knowing what I was getting into,” she says. “In my mind, I thought ‘nursing home’ and had a picture in my mind of what that was like. So I came here for my interview and I looked around, and it was the exact opposite of what I expected.”

Yuen remembers her first day as a server in the dining room. “The very first table I took was three residents. One of them, named Pat Holland, took my hand and said, ‘Don’t worry. You’re going to be just fine.’ That was the start of my journey here.”

Yuen continued to work part time as a server through high school and as she earned her undergraduate degree in Public Health from San Francisco State University. Although she had originally planned to become an RN and work with children, her plans began to change as her grandfather’s health declined. “Because of the type of care I got to witness here [at St. Paul’s], I knew what was dignified and what was demoralizing. I was that annoying granddaughter, always constantly saying, ‘Are you supposed to do this? Are you sure that you’re supposed to pass this off to the residents?’, but it was just because of my love for him. And because of what I saw here, I knew what was right and what was wrong.”

VP of Operations Chris Ichien, who also began his career in senior living in the dining room, was the Executive Director of St. Paul’s Towers after Yuen graduated and as she continued to work as a server and host. “Chris approached me one day and said ‘Hey, there’s a program coordinator job coming up soon. Do you think you’d be interested? I think you’d be good at it.’ And I said, why not?”

Serving as program coordinator gave Yuen the chance to connect with residents in a different way. “When you’re serving every day, you build relationships, you become good friends with the residents and you know their patterns, you know their preferences,” she says. “With the programs job, I got to dig a little deeper. I got to know their history, their life, their hobbies, their interests, and what would drove them. I really enjoyed doing that.”

After six years as program coordinator, Yuen was promoted to Life Enrichment Director, allowing her to work with residents at all levels of care. “Prior to that, I was only focusing on Independent Living, which is great, but I really want to expand my horizons. We made it a point to make sure everybody has the same opportunities and everybody is included.”

She participated in the EMERGE leadership development program offered by LeadingAge California, and she began a Masters in Gerontology program at San Francisco State University. After an 8-hour day at St. Paul’s Towers, she would head to San Francisco for classes. “It was a long day, but I really had fun,” says Yuen. “I saw a bigger picture and had more goals I wanted to fulfill.” She also worked as an Administrator in Training while working towards her Masters degree.

In February 2020, as she was preparing for graduation in May, the health care administrator position at St. Paul’s Towers opened up. Yuen took on the role, working primarily in the Skilled Nursing area and with the clinical team.

“I was very excited to be given that opportunity,” she says. “Again, that opened up a brand new set of opportunities, where I could serve the residents of the different capacity. Whereas before I got to help them with their interests, enriching their lives with programming and keeping them engaged, now I get to do a little bit more clinical work, which was what I wanted to do when I wanted to be an RN. I felt like I got to fulfill that as well.”

In January 2021, when Executive Director Mary Linde announced she would be leaving, she encouraged Yuen to apply. “I knew that was something I wanted to do. I just didn’t know if I wanted to do it right now. I thought about it over the weekend, and I said why not apply? I feel like I’ve been training with Mary for a reason. She has given me a lot of opportunities to learn, to make mistakes, and to grow. I felt like that was all leading up to this point.” After interviewing for the position, Connie began in her new role as Executive Director in March.

During her time at St. Paul’s Towers, Yuen says the biggest thing she’s learned is “there is no cookie cutter way of doing things. What worked last month does not work now. You always learn to adapt. You get to know the people you’re serving and you just embrace it.

“Right now, we have a very different group of people moving in. Some of them are quite a bit younger and they have different needs and wants, whereas when I first started everybody was very formal. You just have to keep in tune with what’s going on in the outside world, as well as in here.” Being an Executive Director is “a lot of responsibility, but it means that people are trusting me to do what’s best for them,”

Yuen still remembers the advice she got on her first day, when a resident held her hand and told her it was going to be OK. “I remember seeing her just a couple days before she passed. I went to go visit her in her room. She held my hand and she said it’s going to be okay. Sometimes I just have to remind myself it’s hard right now but it’s going to be okay because you’re doing what’s best for everybody.”

“For me it’s more than more than just the job,” says Yuen. “It’s maintaining these relationships and making sure that these final years are full of dignity. That’s a huge thing for me.”

If you would like to learn more about St. Paul’s Towers, please call 510.891.8542 or use the contact us form here.