Mind, Body & Spirit

Super volunteer takes community’s health to heart

Rhina Gerhauser

familiar face at the Tucson Jewish Community Center, Rhina Gerhauser in March marked a quarter-century there as a group fitness instructor and personal trainer. Her motto is, “It’s never too late to start living healthier. And always too soon to stop.” In 2015, she was voted Tucson’s Top Group Fitness Instructor by the Arizona Daily Star. “She has touched the lives of so, so many,” says the J’s Director of Wellness Amy Dowe. But those aren’t the only lives she’s had a hand — and a heart — in improving. She recently took time to share with AJP about the passion that drives her both in her work at the J and as a community volunteer.

Raised by her widowed father and his mother, Gerhauser left her native, war-torn El Salvador at age 15, not as much to attend school in Reno, Nevada, as to escape the dangers of the war. Her grandmother taught her through demonstrating kindness and giving. “She was generous with what she had. Part of why I give to others is to remember her.

“That’s one reason I’ve stayed at the J all these years,” she says. “I love the culture, the mitzvah, the giving back,” she says with a smile, using the Hebrew word generally translated as “good deed. “Something really nice happens when you give to others — good feelings kick in. Fitness is a venue to meet people and here … it’s magical. I’ve been offered other jobs, but I stay. It’s amazing how long the members stay here, it’s a blessing. The people really, genuinely become like family.”

Away from the gym, she takes the same enthusiasm to the community as an extraordinary volunteer. She’s always drawn to helping forgotten populations, particularly troubled youth. “Learning about the needs in a community makes your own needs not as important. There is always a situation worse than yours,” she says, calling it “a gift of perspective.”

“When you see children struggling with basic needs, while we as a family, have a strong moral support system, it keeps me grounded and grateful.”

She assists neighborhood groups, school districts and low-income communities in accessing health and fitness materials with Spanish translation. She’s done that for Canyon Ranch Institute Healthy Community Program at Apollo Middle School and Race for the Cure, among others.

Volunteering with the Catalina Foothills School district, she helped design and implement physical activity, nutrition, and wellness programs and assisted with a major curriculum redesign. She helped recruit strong school board members, raising more than $500,000 to fund teaching positions and bring Spanish curriculum back to elementary classrooms.

Ventana Vista Elementary benefited from her fitness and fundraising skills with a program to encourage kids to embrace physical activity at a young age. And as a long-time board member at Open-Inn, Inc., she helped oversee a $5 million operational budget focusing on homeless and at-risk Arizona youth.

Angel Charity for Children, Inc., remains an ongoing passion. A contributing volunteer member, she continues to serve on committees and helped raise more than $27 million for kids in Pima County. “This organization raises money for the agencies that need it most,” she says.

Married to Rich (Doctor “G”), and the mother of three boys, now adults, she balances the stresses of life as a wife, mother, and professional with the importance she places on giving back to the community. “It’s like medicine to me,” she says of her community work. “It gives me great pleasure.” She don’t say yes unless she knows she can do a good job. “I don’t mind being a worker bee,” she adds.

A frequent community health and wellness task force member, Gerhauser may be found organizing dance-a-thons or red carpet balls. For one American Heart Association fundraiser, she gathered over $20,000 in in-kind donations for a silent auction and ball.

She’s part of UA Presents Making and Giving Incredible Contributions (MAGIC), a small committee of women, connected students, teachers and artists that make art accessible for students. Its Gold Star Gala raised funds to support artists-in-residence and facilitate admission and transportation for students in low-performing schools to award-winning UA Presents school matinee programs.

Gerhauser had a life-changing experience attending the yearlong Greater Tucson Leadership class of 2012. It opened her eyes to how well Tucson does things as a community, while learning where many needs remain unmet. She continues to volunteer for succeeding cohorts, gathering speakers from her vast network to present on health and education, and to increase understanding of issues at social and government levels. She worked with former colleague Dr. Richard Carmona to establish the Tucson Drowning Prevention Program. He later went on to become a U.S. Surgeon General, whom she then recruited as a keynote speaker for GTL. She also collaborated with the city, its fire departments, and hospitals on the SAFE Kids community bike helmet program.

For the University of Arizona, she trained more than 75 students in the physical components of working with memory-impaired patients, as part of a one-of-a-kind student-administered Alzheimer rehabilitation research program.

Her heart knows no borders. With her husband’s insistence and some trepidation, the entire family volunteered for a month with Global Frontier Ministries in one of Mexico’s poorest areas of Oaxaca to work on fields, dig water wells, provide medical assistance and teach English to villagers.

In life before the J, Gerhauser completed a bachelor’s degree in sciences from the University of Nevada and graduate work at the University of Arizona. She’s co-owned a wellness business with her husband, was an American Red Cross director and spent 14 years at Canyon Ranch in wellness programming. Completing more than 50 marathons, she’s qualified for the Boston Marathon 15 times and ran in five.

Looking back on her life in the course of talking to the AJP, she notes that “you can enrich your life in more ways that aren’t monetary. Contributing to the greater good. It goes back to why I love the Jewish community. It opens up the heart to know there’s more than just you in the world.

“Life is about perspective. It’s easy to stay comfortable and wait for someone else to do it. What we get back allows us to be better people.”