As a member of the Presidential Classroom for Young Americans, an organization for outstanding high school students from the United States and abroad, Maria McCall spent time in Puerto Rico as a teenager.
“My mother is Cuban, and she had a cousin in Puerto Rico who was a nun in a convent/nursing home,” said McCall. “We visited her and witnessed these nuns who cared for senior citizens who had no family — it was just an amazing place. Well, I was walking down the hallway when a 90-year-old gave me a pin and said to me in Spanish, ‘Your destiny is to work with older people.’
“It was a pivotal moment, and I believe this lovely woman predicted my destiny.”
Toss away troubles
Although this star student, now the director of Our Gang Travel and Enrichment Club at Santa Barbara Bank and Trust in Santa Barbara, California, received her college degree in education, she learned that teaching was not a good fit.
“At the time, I was only a few years older than my students, and I discovered the classroom was not where I wanted to be,” said McCall.
In her search for a new career, McCall realized she was about to fulfill the fateful prediction that had been revealed to her years before.
“I enthusiastically took the job as senior recreation services supervisor for the Santa Barbara Parks and Recreation Department. Over the course of 14 years, I developed a full travel program that I’m very proud of to this day,” she said.
Although McCall described her travel program at the recreation department as modest travel that many could afford, she admits that Our Gang’s travel is all about luxury.
“We currently have about 8,000 members, and over 1,200 are superactive in the travel part of our program. Whether our destination is to see what can only be described as emerald, shimmering and poetic Ireland, or one of the best presidential libraries in the U.S., the Ronald Reagan Library and Museum in Simi Valley, from the time our travelers get on the motorcoach to the moment they return, it is all about pampering.
“In fact, I tell our customers to ‘check your brain at the door because I will take care of everything.’”
On the dozen day trips, four short getaways and four extended trips that Our Gang takes every year, McCall provides muffins and coffee on their drive out of town and cookies on the way home.
“All gratuities are included. I don’t want them to worry about a thing,” she said.
McCall also has personal contacts that provide over-the-top perks for Our Gang. During that journey to the Ronald Reagan Library, she invited her friend Mitzi to tag along.
“Mitzi was Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s private chef. She told us stories about working for this fascinating couple, and as a result, she took an ordinary tour and made it extraordinary,” said McCall.
In New Orleans, McCall’s old hometown, where she was once a debutante, she took enthralled 80- and 90-year-old club members to Preservation Hall and the Royal Sonesta Hotel, where they enjoyed the best jazz the city has to offer and walked on Bourbon Street sipping martinis.
“One 90-year-old said to me that she hadn’t been this naughty since she was in her 20s. I would advise any bank director to take their group to a place they know well in order to do things that aren’t in the canned portion of the trip,” she said.
An important bus bumper sticker
As trivial as it may sound, McCall maintains that it is imperative for bank directors to remember where they work. “Our whole purpose is to keep our members loyal and to grow their relationship with the bank,” she said.
Accordingly, she created a program called Banker on Board. On every Our Gang excursion, McCall invites a bank employee whose job responsibilities include wealth management. That employee — who is used to fielding customer questions like, “How should I invest my money?” and “How can the bank make more money for me?” — comes aboard the motorcoach, is introduced and welcomed.
“I explain what the person does at the bank and announce that if anyone has any questions, he or she will be available for the length of the trip,” said McCall. “And that is the end of the hard sell. That bank employee then helps folks get on and off the bus, serves beverages and has informal conversations like everyone else.
“Throughout the trip, people get more comfortable and indeed have financial discussions with this banker on board. The program has resulted in sizable amounts of money for the bank. It has also kept my entire program viable and in the forefront of the CEO.”
McCall added that one of her professional bankers who often gets on board just so happens to be a magician and a wedding photographer. “He enhances my trips,” she exclaimed. “He’s not just Joe Banker; he’s entertainment and our best form of publicity.”
A resonating voice that soothes
Our Gang enjoys about 15 seminars a year, ranging from bank fraud to medicine use. One of McCall’s favorite subjects is one she titled “The Joys and Challenges of Change.”
“I think the ‘What if’ syndrome often holds our senior citizens back,” she said. “So we openly discuss what happens when we shouldn’t be driving anymore, when we find it’s time that we might want to move into a retirement community, and even available assistance for the caregivers and spouses of patients with Alzheimer’s disease.
“We also discuss having a plan — meaning having a plan for physician’s orders for life-sustaining treatment. It’s so important that these topics be discussed and not feared.”
McCall’s melodic voice is comforting not only when talking about these sometimes uncomfortable topics but also in a Santa Barbara venue, the Alice Keck Park Memorial Gardens, where a sensory garden for the blind amidst scenic trails and landscaped grounds offers metal speakers that alert walkers to smell and touch the surrounding plants.
“It is my taped voice and that of a blind disc jockey in town that these sight-impaired people hear coming from the boxes, instructing them what to do to enjoy their surroundings,” McCall said. “It’s just part of my experience with voice-overs in radio commercials. It’s a fun hobby, and I love it.”