Volunteer Willow DiCenzo dead at 59
West County is mourning the loss of a unique and inspiring local character, Lisa DiCenzo. Known to all simply as “Willow,” she died unexpectedly at home from a heart attack on Oct. 3 at the age of 59. Originally from Ohio, where she worked at an office supply company and AT&T, Willow moved out west, landing in Sonoma County.
Willow was a daily participant in Aqua Aerobics classes at Ives Pool in Sebastopol. While this fact is not remarkable (there are hundreds of regular aqua aerobics attendees), Willow’s story is unique. She was a large woman with a big personality and sense of humor to match her size. A “mermaid” who found solace in the water, she was recruited to teaching when it became clear she had a gift for helping others to be comfortable in the water.
Willow tackled the Water Fitness Instructor certification courses offered by the YMCA in San Francisco. Undaunted by the unfamiliar world of anatomy and physiology, she studied her textbooks and muscle flashcards to ace the certification exam. She completed the rigorous physical requirements that included CPR and Lifeguard training, even body-boarding fellow classmates safely out of the pool after “pretend” injuries.
Willow was hired as the Monday Gentle Water Fitness instructor. She was an invaluable and frequent substitute teacher for other exercise classes at the pool, often filling in on short notice. Ricardo Freitas, pool manager notes, “We could always count on Willow to show up and inspire people to do their best workout with her fun music playlists and humor.” Her unabashed joy in being at the pool encouraged other women to don their bathing suits and exercise safely in the water.
One of Willow’s favorite volunteer activities was helping Sebastopol Rotary with its Learn to Swim Program. The program offers free swim lessons to all second graders in the Sebastopol area and is run with the help of volunteers. Eleven thousand children have passed through the program, which has offered a month of half-hour lessons at Ives Pool since 1984.
Greg Jacobs, a co-chair of the swim program for almost 15 years said, “When I first met Willow several years ago, she said she had heard about the Learn to Swim Program at Ives Pool when helping with the water aerobics classes. And she said she saw tons of kids coming to the pool around noon four days a week starting in late April. She watched the lessons being offered and told me she really wanted to help.” And help she did, by teaching every class, every day during the month-long program. That’s 24 classes, Monday through Thursday.
Jacobs and the other co-chair for the Rotary lessons, Rick Wilson, marveled at her dedication to the kids. Rick named her as one of the top volunteers for the program, and she was honored at club luncheons for the past several years. Willow was also very proud to receive and wear new Learn to Swim tee shirts that were given to volunteers each year. She was a great booster of the program and loved her pupils.
She literally touched the lives of the children in the water, often helping them to get over an initial fear of water, holding them while they floated, and giving them a “High Five” at every opportunity. Both Jacobs and Wilson have said that Willow DiCenzo gave two of the most important things that could be given to children of the Sebastopol Community — the ability to be safe in the water and self esteem. For Jacobs and Wilson, Willow was an irreplaceable part of their program. They will both miss her dedication and good humor.
Branching out from the pool and recognizing her aptitude for working with children, Willow took Spanish language lessons and became a volunteer in the Vida Nueva after school program in Rohnert Park. She designed and carried out activities to engage the children in creative learning.
Most recently Willow was a dedicated volunteer at Food For Thought (FFT) in Forestville. She helped in the FFT garden, and on Tuesdays she volunteered in the Food Bank, putting together orders for clients and pitching in with whatever else was needed. Helen Myers, FFT volunteer program manager reports, “Willow was a joy to work with and a light for fellow volunteers, staff, and clients. She could fill a room, and everyone enjoyed working with her. Not to mention, the home-baked goods she brought to share with other volunteers and staff were such a treat! She was always so thoughtful.”
A celebration of life circle and potluck reception for Willow will be held at Ives Pool on Saturday, Nov. 3 from 2:30-5 p.m. All are welcome to join in a community effort to give the “Mermaid of Ives Pool” the send-off she deserves. Donations in Willow’s honor may be made to “Ives Pool” for a memorial poolside bench and Swimming Lesson scholarship fund.