Avondale Senior Center Celebrates 100th Birthday Of Longtime Volunteer 'Mommy Juanita'
In one West Valley senior center, a celebration is in store for a woman turning 100 years old on Wednesday. It’s the first 100th birthday for this center, and the birthday girl has been the life of the party for the past two decades.
On a busy morning at the Avondale Senior Center, a fiddler plays to a crowded hall.
It’s pre-lunch entertainment, and among the crowd is 100-year-old Juanita Zeitler. She talks animatedly to the woman next to her, who is knitting a pink yarn square.
Senior Center Coordinator Erin Lutz shows me around the building.
“We call her Mommy Juanita," Lutz said. "Because she is mommy to all.”
Everyone at the center knows Mommy Juanita. She has been there every single day, if she’s not traveling, for the last 19 years.
“Juanita used to be a huge volunteer here, serving the people all the time. She said it was God’s will for her to be here helping and serving people.”
Today, Juanita sits down with Lutz after the fiddle performance, brimming with energy.
“I’m just hearing the excitement, there inside,” she said.
Her R’s roll in an accent that comes from the Filipino island, Mindanao, where she grew up.
Her father was Spanish, her mother Filipino. Juanita was one of 18 children who all worked in the family rice fields.
She lived through three years of Japanese occupation during World War II, which left more than a million Filipinos dead. It was a brutal period of conflict that included the notorious Bataan Death March.
Her family hid in the mountains, surviving on meager rations.
But Juanita now lives squarely in the present, in America — and she likes to keep it light.
“Life is better here. Life is easier here,” she said.
Juanita had two daughters with her first husband, an American citizen working on the island.
After he died, she was introduced to another American, Albert Zeitler, by mail. She decided to marry him, immigrating to California. She left her family behind, including her two daughters.
“They’re all crying when I left. It breaks my heart," Zeitler said. "I said, ‘What can I do?’ It’s for my own good and for my two girls.’”
She was business-minded, according to her oldest daughter, Lillian, and very strict. Juanita said she went the old-school route, reprimanding her children with a stick or, as her daughter says, just a certain look.
And she worked hard, doing side gigs along the way.
When her second husband died, Juanita moved to Arizona for the weather and never remarried.
Now, she lives with her youngest daughter in Avondale and made a new family at the senior center.
“Men and women, they’re all my friends. They all respect me. They better, or else they’ll get the stick!” she said, laughing.
Back in the hall for lunch, Juanita sits among her friends.
For her 100th birthday celebration, one of the center’s seniors drew a portrait of her when she was young.
Juanita brings people together. She introduced fellow Filipino Aurora Colinayo to the center five years ago.
“She showed you her picture when she was young? Oh my god, she looks like an actress!” Colinayo said.
And Juanita brought Colinayo together with her recently-passed boyfriend, introducing them at the senior center.
“She was the one who distributed the food to us, and she was still beautiful, very beautiful,” Colinayo said.
Juanita’s eyes glitter in a made-up face lined with the impressions of that laugh that comes at the end of all her stories.
Her white hair is pinned back with a silver headband, and her blue and white polka-dot dress is immaculate.
Bracelets and rings frame her red, glossy nails.
Juanita still works out every day to stay healthy.
“Every day, I exercise. That’s good," she said earnestly. "It helps us!”
Now, she’s happy to say it’s time to live her life for herself. It only took 100 years to get there.
“I’m free," Zeitler said. "I’m free with my children, I’m free with my life, without bothering other people. That’s what makes me happy. And I told my kids to do the same.”
As lunch begins, Juanita turns to the woman knitting beside her and they start chatting and laughing together again. Senior Center Coordinator Lutz tells me that woman only speaks Farsi, and Juanita does not. But it’s no problem. Mommy Juanita’s infectious laugh transcends the language barrier.