Jamie Whidden's calm, quiet voice is the first thing to draw you in. Then it is his ready smile. As executive director of the historic Saranac?Village at Will Rogers Retirement Community, Jamie is constantly on the move, looking for ways to improve the quality of life on the hill. Always willing to learn, he applies his own experiences to gain a new perception into his community.
"I broke my ankle this winter, falling on snow and ice, and I got to see first hand how a place like Will Rogers works - to have a meal made or have someone ask and care how I was doing. I had to use a walker for four weeks and had many experienced walker consultants give me advice," he chuckled. "They knew all the best techniques. One resident told me 'It looks like you went from sympathy to empathy.' It gave me insight into what people are going through that may live here but also insight into how I want to live my own life."
He spent his early years relocating with his father's job.
Jamie Whidden with his son Sage and wife Chantelle
"I can't claim to come from anywhere originally. My father's position involved a lot of moving, but we did have an anchor point in this area. My mother's family is originally from Cortland and they had access to one of the state campgrounds on Follensby Clear Pond until all those campsites were taken away. When I lived in Elmira from 2nd to 8th grade, we would come here almost every summer."
Those memories are what brought Jamie and his wife from California to start a life in Saranac Lake. They had met while in boarding school when Jamie was a freshman and Chantelle was in 8th grade. They met through a gymnastics program when she attended the same school for one year. After she left, Jamie was working in the public relations office as part of the school's curriculum, his role being to reconnect with former students. He remembers sending a form letter out to former students.
"Chantelle sent back a rather fiery reply, berating me for not sending a personal response to a friend," he laughed. The two kept in touch off and on over the next few years, but eventually lost touch.
While working as public relations director for a hospital in California, Jamie was flipping through his cousin's medical school student directory and noticed that Chantelle had attended school in Southern California. Again they reconnected. They corresponded a little bit and then fell out of touch again.
Two years later, he was at a wedding in Michigan where a school friend recommended that Jamie get in touch with a cousin in California. Jamie went back home, called the girl, who was not interested in an introduction.
"Five minutes after I hung up, the phone rang, and it was Chantelle asking why I was hitting on her roommate," he said. "It turned out she was going to do her physical therapy rotation in northern California, where I was located. So we made plans to meet and got together after that."
They later married and decided on a six-month honeymoon in Brazil, combined with a language study program.
"I had studied abroad in Spain while in college and worked in Mexico," Jamie said. "My first job out of college was working in the public relations office at a university in Mexico. I had decided I wanted to get a degree in international affairs to be more marketable. I wanted to learn Portuguese so I could communicate with pretty much everyone in South America."
Jamie didn't want the language to be the only way he could associate with people. He began to study the art form of Capoeira, which blends elements of dance, music, African-Brazilian rituals, acrobatics, and fighting techniques.
"With other forms of martial arts, when you are going to face your opponent, it's a fight. In Capoeira, the Berimbau (a bowed instrument with a gourd that resonates) sets the tone for the players," Jamie said. "If it plays a certain rhythm it will tell you that this is a game and so there will be a way you try to get out of the way of your opponent. You will try to use trickery and deception to turn things up to your advantage without really hurting someone else.
"I've been involved in Capoeira for 10 years now. When I was living in Ukiah (north of San Francisco, Calif. and the largest city in Mendocino County), one of the first students of Capoeira in the United States was teaching there, in Ukiah. I was able to take advantage of the opportunity of this direct lineage. It was a very direct connection to Brazil through this teacher. I trained for three months and developed a tiny bit of proficiency, but when I went to Brazil, I knew something about it and I could keep on building."
He teaches one class every week at Salon Mirage. He has had everyone in it from his 3--year-old son to adults over 60. He also teaches students Capoeria at SUNY?Plattsburgh and Middlebury College.
"When you're teaching, you're teaching the undercurrents and how to play the game, but when you play the game, you need to be prepared," Jamie said. "A lot of times, you get what you give. There are a lot of wisdom sayings that get passed around through the art like, 'When you're in a far-off land walk softly,' because you don't want to go play in a circle called the Roda and be very aggressive. Then everyone that plays after you wants the chance to test their skills on you."
It helps by giving you ways to solve problems and conflicts creatively. This art form has allowed Jamie to apply the concepts to other aspects in his life.
"This has allowed me to see that you don't want to hit conflict straight on," Jamie said. "In Capoeira, you never take a kick straight on and try to block it because it will hurt you. Instead, you try to sweep around and change the flow of movement.
"I believe in my professional life that straightforward communication is very important. I also believe that outright conflict doesn't help anyone and there are ways to pull back from anger and pull back from frustration and not have to hit something head on and still be straightforward and make your point. That is how Capoeria has helped me in my life."
After returning from Brazil, Jamie and Chantelle were looking for a seasonal change.
"Chantelle was so sick of the heat that she wanted to go someplace cool, and I knew the perfect spot," Jamie said. "We came here (to Saranac Lake) without jobs or anything in 1999."
His first job in the area was monitoring study halls in Tupper Lake High School, and his wife got a job as a physical therapist at the hospital. Then a position opened with Saranac Village at Will Rogers, an independent living retirement community.
"I started out as marketing director, renting the apartments just three months after the retirement community opened in 2000. Before that, the building was derelict and on the endangered list of historic buildings for Adirondack Architecture Heritage. The building was built in 1927 and served as the tuberculosis hospital for actors and entertainers where there was also an onsite laboratory that worked to attempt to find a TB cure. Now there are 71 apartments, and all but one is rented at the moment. We were able to preserve the historic aspect and still add the modern amenities."
"One of the best gifts of being here is diversity of age," Jamie said. "Since my son was born, he has been coming here and has had the wonderful opportunity to be involved with the residents. There are so many beautiful connections to make with the people here. We have so many programs, arts and entertainments that are open and available to the public, not just the residents. It really helps us to be integrated into the greater community.
"The stories I hear are what I account as an amazing gift. My son will only ever be able to watch the movies 'A Band of Brothers' or 'Saving Private Ryan,' but I actually speak to the people that were there. Some of the stories I hear are amazing. That connection to the past is truly amazing.
"For me, having the opportunity to work at Will Rogers truly lets me see how I want to live my elder years. The people here are living life to the fullest. They are so involved in their hobbies, travel, family and friends. It gives me a chance to start with the end in mind and see that I want to be involved and connected. That makes life wonderful in all its stages. It is what helps make Will Rogers a success, the interconnectivity. It makes it right for people. It isn't just the great services: meals, laundry or housekeeping. It is the connection between the people and the staff."