The Sterns – Bright Lights in the Valley

It’s a beautiful day in March. Dr. Jack Stern is addressing a group of potential residents of Willow Valley Communities at the Westin in Annapolis.  “I’m here to tell you about the negatives at Willow Valley, from a resident’s perspective,” he says.  Holding up a long chain of taped-together index cards, Jack lets them fall to their full length.  There is a chuckle.  By the end of the first card, Jack has the audience hooked.  The cards contain “negatives” such as “The food is too good here, and I’m gaining weight.”   “There are too many activities:  if I go to Zumba, I might miss my tap class.”   Jack is a gifted speaker, after having engaged audiences for many years.  Afterwards, his wife Lora joins him as people from the audience ask question after question about their experience at Willow Valley.

Jack and Lora Stern are vibrancy personified.  Throughout their lives they have made decisions that allow them to live life fully.  And their move to Providence Park at Willow Valley from Annapolis last year is no exception.  When they drove onto the Willow Valley property, they looked at each other and agreed that this was it.  “We could see ourselves here,” said Lora.

Not all of their friends understood their decision.  “There are so many misperceptions about communities like Willow Valley,” observes Jack.   One good friend asked the Sterns why active, healthy people like they were moving to a “nursing home.”  Jack especially enjoyed showing that same person around Willow Valley when he came to visit.  Walking through the impressive Cultural Center, Jack paused and said, “Heck of a nursing home, isn’t it?”

Like many residents at Willow Valley, the Sterns traveled a winding road to Willow Valley—and to each other, for that matter.   Jack was born in Connecticut went to University of Vermont, then on to medical school at the University of Maryland.  Lora was a Southern girl, born in South Carolina.  She studied nursing and eventually wound up working at the same Maryland Hospital, Jack as an attending physician and Lora as Nursing Supervisor.

“It was not love at first sight,” says Lora, smiling.  After a few months of adjusting to one another’s different styles, the two found that together they made quite a good team.

Their teamwork would eventually lead them to Canyon Ranch, the now-world-renowned health spa destination resort in Tucson, Arizona.   Before taking on Canyon Ranch, though, the Sterns took charge of their personal wellness.  In their Maryland days, Lora had taken nutrition classes as part of her nursing program which emphasized the benefits of eating non-processed food, foods without chemicals.  “It was novel at that point in time,” said Lora.  Lora began to pay more attention to her eating habits.

Meanwhile Jack was eating hot dogs.  “I was a big guy,” said Jack.  “One day, it dawned on me that we are what we eat—and what I was eating was going to kill me.”   The Sterns changed their lifestyle, largely inspired by Lora, and Jack lost a lot of weight.  It was a new beginning, the beginning of a lifelong commitment that would help them ultimately impact the wellness of thousands of people.

Once at Canyon Ranch, together, Jack and Lora developed and lead the resort’s root wellness program.  They wrote articles about whole-person wellness, helping promote and popularize the concept.

“We were there for 10 years,” Jack explained.  “We also helped open the new location in Lenox, Massachusetts.”

During that time, they had the opportunity to work closely (and play racquetball) with Andrew Weil, the father of integrative medicine, a field which aims to combine traditional and alternative medicine approaches.  “We were there as integrative medicine was beginning,” said Jack.  “It was exciting to be part of it. “  Lora agreed:  “It was quite an experience.  Andrew is a gentle spirit, with a good heart,” said Lora.

Those words also describe the Sterns.  From their experience with Canyon Ranch, they moved into another groundbreaking endeavor.  The Sterns went to clown school.  One of Lora’s classes had explored the healing properties of laughter, and the couple saw a number of potential applications for using clown therapy.  They trained with many folks who were headed for the Big Top.  The Sterns wound up establishing a program that they conducted with business groups, in hospitals and prisons, bringing laughter and wellness to the people they served.  “It was powerful,” says Lora.  “And we loved the shoes.”

Jack served many other roles throughout his career—as a Medical Director for the United States Naval Academy, for example.  He also knew a great deal about senior living having both worked for and served on the board of senior living organizations.  Jack’s most recent position was with a long-term care insurance company, and he now shares his insights with others about how Lifecare and long-term care insurance can work together.  Soon after moving to Willow Valley, Jack became a representative on the Resident’s Council.

Throughout their lives, Jack and Lora Stern have made a difference in the world.  Now they’re making a difference at Willow Valley.  In less than a year, they have become the best of neighbors in every sense of the word.  Just don’t call them on Thursday nights.  They’ll be at Zumba.

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