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Bringing Joy in Small Ways

The Couple the Wears Many Hats

Published in the October 2022 Issue Published online: Oct 01, 2022 Senior Living
Viewed 601 time(s)


By: Annie Carbutt

THERE ARE NO TWO PEOPLE quite like Leroy Duenes and Colene Baker. Most any day of the week, you can find them at a local senior living facility dancing for residents and having a great time.

They’re so popular and beloved, they’ve even become known as the sunshine duo because they like to make people happy. They’re also honorary members of the Old Time Fiddlers. The couple likes to show up when the fiddlers are playing and get seniors out of their seats and dancing to the music. It fills the room with smiles.

Everyone loves the dancing. But if you ask people who know Leroy and Colene, it isn’t the dancing they’re remembered for.

It’s the hats.

Leroy and Colene decorate new hats every week to wear while they dance. If you’ve seen one of these hats, you know it. They’re impossible to miss.

“It makes people happy,” Leroy said. “The hats are great conversation starters. They really get people’s attention.”

“It’s a way to bring joy to people,” said Colene.

The hats are often wrapped in blinking lights and bejeweled with anything from large silk roses to small stuffed animals. However unusual the hats or the chosen method of serving others may be, it totally works. Everywhere they go, Leroy and Colene make new friends, and people leave smiling.

The Beginning of Something Great

Leroy and Colene met at a local church singles conference 4 years ago where Leroy was speaking. After his talk, Leroy walked down to the audience and handed out several roses. He gave one of them to Colene. The two soon began dating and the rest is history. They’ve been bringing joy to those around them ever since.

“We had so much in common,” Colene said, “from our favorite music to the fact that we both love to serve.”

Service has been the bedrock of their relationship from the beginning. These days they spend regular time in senior living facilities dancing and playing Bingo, but they’ve volunteered at many other places as well. The tradition of the hats actually began with a volunteer opportunity at a local pumpkin patch.

“The pumpkin patch owner told us he wanted us to dress like we were working for a pumpkin patch and really get people’s attention,” Leroy said. “So I made a Halloween hat. I decorated it so no one would miss it. The kids loved it. They all wanted to touch it and wear it and talk to me about it. That’s when I realized I had really found something. Now we make hats every week.”

Leroy and Colene have decorated over 200 hats to date. Though these days they mostly display the hats to older people and not children, the effect is the same. People love it, even if it takes them a minute to warm up to the idea.

“Some people think we’re stupid, but they laugh at us, so they’re still having fun,” Leroy said. “We met one cowboy who said, ‘How come you’re wearing that stupid hat?’ I said to him, ‘Your girlfriend’s staring at me. And on top of that, I could talk to every single woman in this place. They want to have a conversation with me. How about you?"

“Now he’s one of our best friends,” Colene said. “He always comes and gives us hugs when he sees us.”

This isn’t uncommon. Leroy and Colene have a way of turning frowns into smiles and making new friends in the process.

Dark Days Before the Rainbow

As often as Leroy and Colene make others happy, life hasn’t always been about smiles and rainbows for them.
Leroy, in particular, has a few stories he can tell about dark days.

“When my little girl was two years old, she got cancer. We ended up in the intensive care unit at the University of San Francisco for 45 days. The doctor saved her life. But when we saw the bill, it was over $180,000.”

When Leroy asked about options for paying the bill, the hospital staff looked up the information and told him someone had already paid it.

He was in shock.

At first he couldn’t imagine who might have done such a generous thing. But as he thought about it, he realized the bill must have been paid by the doctor who saved his daughter’s life.

“I tracked him down and I said, it was you, wasn’t it? And he said, it was me what? And I said, you paid my daughter’s hospital bill.”

The doctor tried unsuccessfully to brush it aside, but Leroy persisted. Finally the doctor looked at Leroy and asked him a question that would change his life.

“What are you going to do about it?” he asked.

Leroy didn’t even hesitate. “I’m gonna help somebody every single day of my life.”

Leroy was 21 years old at the time. He’s kept his promise.

Seeking Service

For Leroy, his moment of truth propelled him forward to a life of service. His first great act was to start a charity organization to provide funds for families with hospitalized children in Northern California. Though Leroy has long since passed the baton to others, the organization, Parents for Heroes, still runs to this day.

Leroy didn’t stop with the charity organization. Both formally and informally, he has filled his life with moments of reaching out to others and serving them in big and small ways, including in his time as a mechanic at the Idaho National Laboratory. Colene has also filled her life with acts of service. This is just what Leroy and Colene do.

These days, Colene and Leroy turn to their routine that allows them to serve together. Life is never dull for them. They’ve discovered the true secret to lasting happiness by dedicating themselves to the happiness of others.

And they’re having a great time doing it.

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