‘Home away from home’

Senior center connects visitors with friendly faces, range of resources

Ponese Skinner (left) and Lois Belmore make clay plaques as part of a workshop in the Southwest Senior Center's DayElders program. Photo by Nate Gotlieb

As Kathy Webster began playing “This Little Light of Mine” on the piano, Harold Jones stood up from his chair and shuffled around the room, stepping to the beat.

Jones walked around to each of the women in the room at the Southwest Senior Center, dancing and smiling as they sang gospel songs. Janie Harris, a 16-year participant in the center’s DayElders adult day program, served as song leader, calling out the tunes she wanted Webster to play.

Lucinda Naylor leads Tai Chi class at the Southwest Senior Center, a Minneapolis nonprofit that offers a variety of services from meals to exercise classes for people 50 and older. Photo by Nate Gotlieb
Lucinda Naylor leads Tai Chi class at the Southwest Senior Center, a Minneapolis nonprofit that offers a variety of services from meals to exercise classes for people 50 and older. Photo by Nate Gotlieb

The half-an-hour song session was just one of a handful of programs happening during a recent morning at the 40-year-old center in southwest Minneapolis. Other center-goers also practiced tai chi, discussed forgiveness, made name plaques out of clay and ate lunch and homemade cake.

“It’s just like home away from home,” Harris said of the center. “It’s just enjoyable.”

Many at the center appeared to feel that way, praising the staff and noting the friends they’ve made there over the years. Some originally came for exercise or other classes but have come to utilize the center for other services, such as dining and brain games.

“You meet a lot of nice people,” said Theresa Ernst, who came on the recent morning with homemade chocolate caramel and vanilla cakes to share. “I don’t know what I’d do without the center.”

Southwest Senior Center offers a variety of programs and services for people 50 and older, including exercise classes, the DayElders program, a monthly food shelf and senior dining program and social-work services.

Founded through a community-planning process 40 years ago, the center then became affiliated with Senior Resources before merging with Volunteers of America in 1999. Many of the staff have worked there for more than a decade.

“When people come, they know they’re going to see a friendly face,” said Linda Walker, the center’s social worker of 15 years. “I think just people knowing that somebody cares about them makes a difference.”

Walker serves as a resource to center-goers on issues from affordable housing to Social Security and Medicare, drawing on her 39 years of working with seniors to help them retain as much independence as possible. She offers her services for no cost, thanks to a United Way grant that pays for her position. Last year, she served about 650 people.

Walker said old age can be very lonely for a lot of folks. The center, she said, offers people an advocate, a place to socialize and a staff that cares.

“These people have worked their whole life and have experiences that need to be honored,” she said. “They’ve seen an awful lot of change in their lifetime, and I love hearing how they’ve adapted to that change.”

The center’s warm atmosphere could be seen on the recent morning, starting as Webster made French toast for the DayElders participants. Other center-goers watched a video about forgiveness as part of their weekly mindfulness class before joining the DayElders participants for lunch and Ernst’s homemade cake.

“For a small program, (the center) offers a lot,” center-goer Judith Prentiss said. “It’s a good source of friends.”

Webster said the DayElders participants develop close friendships with other center-goers, staying in touch outside the building and sharing life events with each other. The DayElders group ranges in age from 40 to 98 and in physical and cognitive abilities, but the group still has strong chemistry, Webster said.

“We just want to make sure everyone feels comfortable,” she said. “A lot of people just really appreciate being here.”

Center-goer Betty Tocko appeared to agree. A friend first showed her the center as a place to exercise about three years ago, but since then has become a volunteer in the DayElders program. “It just has it all,” she said of the center. “A lot of love.”


Southwest Senior Center

Location: 3612 Bryant Ave. S.

Contact: 612-822-3194

Website: voamnwi.org/southwest-center

Year founded: 1976


By the numbers:

957: Number of individuals served annually

165: Number of people social worker Linda Walker helped choose a Medicare Part D plan

14: Number of exercise classes per week at the center

175: Number of people who helped with the center’s community mosaic project

7,590: Number of meals served in a year at the center


What you can do:

Volunteer as part of a group. There are opportunities to help with brain games, bingo, garden prep and more.

Volunteer as an individual. The center could always use help with its senior-dining program, adult-day program and computer program. It also welcomes people with a special talent, hobby or travel experience to come and share.


About the Where We Live project

This project is an ongoing series spearheaded by Journals’ publisher Janis Hall showcasing Minneapolis nonprofits doing important work in the community. The editorial team has selected organizations to spotlight. Nate Gotlieb is the writer for the project. To read previous features, go to southwestjournal.com/section/focus/where-we-live