Sylwia Bujak Oliver, 125 Live executive director, becomes a U.S. citizen – Post Bulletin


ROCHESTER — When Sylwia Bujak Oliver moved to Rochester 10 years ago — a Polish-born woman who had been raising her young family in Northern Ireland — it marked the beginning of a difficult transition.

Sylwia (pronounced Sylvia) Bujak was in her mid-20s when she traveled to Northern Ireland for a year of travel and exploration. She ended up meeting her husband, Gavin, there and living in Northern Ireland for the next seven years, until a job opportunity at Mayo Clinic beckoned her husband and the young family to Rochester.

“It was quite a lonely existence,” Sylwia remarks about those first years living in Rochester.

She was then a new mother, raising her 1-year-old daughter. Her family had landed in September when the weather was nice. But once winter hit, it seemed interminable. There was a massive snowfall in May. She didn’t know anybody.

What’s worse, she wasn’t allowed to work. Though educated and trained as a lawyer in Poland, her visa status as the spouse of someone who had an H1B1 visa prevented her from working.

Today, Oliver is the executive director of 125Live, Rochester’s multi-generational fitness center and successor to the Rochester Senior Center — a post she has held for the past five years.

And she is a new U.S. citizen.

Last November, Oliver and her husband participated in a swearing-in ceremony, and by virtue of their new status, their 11-year-old daughter, Arianna became a citizen, too.

“We brought (Arianna) to the swearing-in,” Oliver said. “We didn’t have to, but we wanted her to have the exposure, and she found (the ceremony) very profound.”

Oliver talked about her early years in Rochester — and her initial loneliness — when asked how her citizenship had affected her.

Oliver said she felt “more relaxed,” now that she possessed the rights and protections of a U.S. citizen. As the holder of a green card, one never knew how even the slightest violation of the law — say a speeding ticket — might affect a person’s visa status. As someone involved in the community, Oliver said she appreciated that she could now vote. She also said she felt more empowered to speak out, whereas before she might have been more cautious.

Not that Oliver, a gregarious woman with a knack for working a room, has been shy about voicing her views. Even before becoming a citizen, Oliver has been a vocal advocate for allowing people on spouse visas to work. During the pandemic, when businesses were struggling to fill jobs, there was talent ready to be tapped, but immigration law prevented it.

“I’ve been very vocal recently about the fact that we were talking about workforce shortages, and there’s people like me who spent four-and-half years begging (to work),” Oliver said. “I wanted to be a productive member of society, who wanted the opportunity to work.”

So how did this Polish-trained lawyer become director of 125 Live?

Getting a work permit proved to be a yearslong process for Oliver. While she waited, she began volunteering at the Rochester YMCA as a fitness instructor, then expanded her role into scheduling.

“I couldn’t just be a good fitness instructor. I had to get involved deeper,” she said.

When Oliver finally got a work permit in September 2016, she searched Google for jobs and out popped “senior citizens services.” She applied to be a fitness instructor at the Rochester Senior Center, yet she recalled being petrified. Nearly five years had passed since she last held a job, and she didn’t know whether her skills and Polish-accented English would cut it in the local job market.

“My law degree means nothing here,” she said. “I don’t know how the workforce changed. And, suddenly, I am to find myself a job.”

She proved to be a quick study and moved rapidly up the ranks within two years.

She began work at the senior center when it was beginning its transition to 125 Live — a time when public anger and resistance to the new facility, from the concept to its name, was at a high pitch. Oliver became membership services manager. She then moved up to operations manager after the first executive director, Sally Gallagher, resigned. In 2018, she was named the new executive director.

One of Oliver’s earliest responsibilities was to steer 125 Live past the hostile reaction that had taken hold in the community, particularly among seniors still attached to the old senior center at the Castle location in downtown Rochester..

“I think Sally did a phenomenal job, but it was exhausting,” Oliver said. “Those first months, anywhere you went, people were just upset all the time. Slowly but surely (attitudes changed).”

Oliver said people needed time to adjust to the idea that 125 Live represented a new way of serving seniors. The very concept of a senior had changed. It was no longer someone who “naps and wakes up and crochets.” This new senior was independent and active in the community. 125 Live maintained that connection through activities meant to keep the body and mind sharp.

Some people never reconciled themselves to 125 Live, but many have, as evidenced on a recent Monday morning when the PB interviewed Oliver.

The Castle ghosts have been banished. The parking lot was packed, and inside members were engaged in a wide variety of activities: Games and puzzles, rowing and drumming classes, programs featuring guest speakers, quilting (yes, quilting), boxing, pottery and congregant dining. There are now 5,500 members at 125 Live. It is open to all adults, 18 on up, but the average age is 68, Oliver said.

“I think it is acceptance,” said Oliver, who teaches boxing using a boxing bag.

Oliver recalled one lady who said she would never set foot inside 125 Live, she was so opposed to it. But she relented and changed her tune.

“Now, (she says), I love this place,” Oliver said.