Senior Centers Shape New Role as Community Hubs

Nancy Abbott
By Nancy Abbott December 15, 2010 13:45

Tuolumne County Senior Center, Sonora

It’s a Tuesday afternoon at the Senior Center, and visitors are greeted with a cheery hello from the receptionist. George Sherard’s voice rings out, calling bingo numbers to avid players. Nearby, a man in workout clothes towels his forehead after a fitness class. Down the hall, a computer class is under way.

Mike Ruggles with front-desk volunteers Sherrin Franklin (left) and Celia Seubert

Erase any outdated image of a dreary building where weary people while away their days in lackluster fashion. More than 50 groups and organizations regularly use the center, according to Mike Ruggles, executive director of Sierra Senior Providers, which runs the program. He envisions a larger building one day to house the community center it has become.

His vision for the site? “More responsive to today’s world.” Since taking over after the 2009 drowning death of director Randy Hunsaker, Ruggles, 69, has been trying to assess the interests and needs of area seniors. The challenge, he says, is to serve three distinct generations.

The center already serves the  “greatest generation” in their mid- to late 80s and above, and the mid-60s and 70s “silent generation. ” Next up: 40s to mid-60s Boomers, whose numbers in the foothills are expected to swell dramatically in the coming years.

“I hope to find agencies or individuals to provide classes such as yoga, tai-chi, meditation, and creative writing to appeal to the Boomers, while keeping the bingo, bridge, cribbage and quilting – attractive to the other generations,” Ruggles says. “Now we don’t see many Boomers. They tend to have the mindset that they’re not seniors. Many are still working, and others are more apt to act as volunteers.”

In fact, the center needs more volunteers to maintain and expand its offerings, Ruggles says. He wants to increase hours and bolster its website to streamline information to increasingly computer-savvy seniors. Activities include daily fitness classes and an array of social events from card games and computer classes to community speakers and monthly dances. Free legal aid is available by appointment once a month. Various groups rent space at the center for a minimal fee. Generally, if the group is nonprofit or a majority of its members over 60, the space is free if used during normal operating hours.

From its commercial kitchen, a staff of four aided by volunteers prepare hot lunches daily at the center – an average of more than 1,200 meals a month, including those sent to Groveland and Sugar Pine. Meals are also made here for Meals on Wheels delivery to homebound seniors. More than 58,000 meals were delivered in 2010, up from 51,000 the year before. Mammoth freezers store the meals delivered frozen for weekend consumption, and the seven frozen meals delivered once a week to people in certain outlying areas, in lieu of the daily hot meals.

With the economic downturn and a resulting drop in donations, another big need is financial help; to fill the big gap between meal prices and actual costs, the nonprofit relies on grants, fundraisers and donations.

Hours: 8am-4pm Monday-Friday, 540 Greenley Road, lunch 11:30am-1pm, $3.50 donation. Call for details about La Grange area meal program, 533-2622,,

Senior Lounge and Boutique, downtown Sonora

The volunteer-staffed site hosts activities such as free bingo, 1-2:30pm the third Tuesday of each month (September through May). Visitors can enjoy the music of The Leftovers Band from 10am-3pm Fridays.

Josie Brookshire, 76, has volunteered since the doors opened 10 years ago. She can be found here each Thursday, along with her husband, Herb, 79, who has Parkinson’s disease. “It’s the best therapy to have Herb around people,” explains Josie as she pats their 6-year-old Doberman, Arianna, who has welcomed visitors to the center since she was a pup.

Sales of holiday candy and seniors’ consigned crafts help support the lounge, which doubles as the city’s fire museum, offering visitors a look at antique fire equipment, photos and memorabilia.

Hours: 9am-3pm Tuesday-Friday, 125 N. Washington St., 532-7890.

Upcountry Senior Center, Sugar Pine

The more the merrier, says June Kohler, coordinator for the high-country site.

“We help each other,” says Kohler, 81, of the dozen or so people who regularly eat lunch and socialize here. “It’s almost like a family.”

A satellite of the county senior center, the center offers fitness classes and lunch each Tuesday and Thursday. Guest speakers visit occasionally, a retired nurse offers blood-pressure checks, and birthdays are often celebrated with cake. The one constant: happy socializing.

“If they want to play cards, they can, and some crochet, but mostly they just want to talk,” says Kohler.

Hours: 10:30am-1pm Tuesdays and Thursdays, Mt. Calvary Lutheran Church Fellowship Hall, 21476 Pine Lake Dr. Exercise classes 10:45-11:45am both days, lunch follows, $3.50 donation, 60 and over. 588-8166

The Little House, Groveland

New energy has infused this small center operated by Southside Senior Services, Inc. It opened in October 2009, after remodeling made possible by a Sonora Area Foundation grant and the volunteer efforts of Groveland Rotary Club members and others. The mission: to provide health, recreation, social and educational experiences in a multigenerational setting.

“We offer a growing variety of activities which benefit area seniors, but are not restricted to only seniors,” says site coordinator Luci Tyndall. “In a little community such as ours, we find it’s important to serve that way – to benefit caregivers of seniors, for example, as well as the seniors themselves.”

Three small buildings comprise The Little House, an interim center as the community shapes long-term plans for a larger center across town. Meals are served in the main house, where activities include games, veterans’ counseling and twice-monthly blood pressure checks. The center building houses yoga and other classes, and serves as a meeting room for grief support and other such groups. The third building hosts Wii bowling leagues and fitness classes.

The nonprofit continues to assess community needs, including the need for seniors’ transportation to Sonora medical appointments. This retirement community’s remote location presents a challenge, Tyndall says. Residents love the lifestyle but may have to leave to be closer to essential services.

Says Tyndall: “We’re looking at ways to serve them so they don’t have to move.”

Hours: Open according to planned activities, 11699 Merrell Road and Highway 120. Lunch at noon Tuesdays and Thursdays; call 962-1050 before 8am for reservations, $3.50 donation, 60 and over. 962-7303, check calendar online at

Tuolumne Senior Program

Senior and youth programs share the Tuolumne Youth Center, which reopened in early 2010 after repairs from storm damage in late 2009. The free senior program offers activities for those 50-plus, including volunteer opportunities, says program coordinator Cassie Williams.

“Because seniors are a wealth of information, we like them to mentor young kids,” Williams explains. “But we also offer an opportunity for seniors to take time for themselves and to socialize.”

Each month about 60 seniors take part in activities that include arts and crafts, games, pool and table tennis, computer use, and guest speakers. They also play cards, pool or ping-pong, or just sit and visit.

Williams hopes to receive grant funding or support from other local agencies to expand the program, to offer transportation and meals. “We’re interested in the overall health of our seniors,” she said. “Anything we can do to help, we will.”

Hours: 9am-noon Mondays at Tuolumne Youth Center, adjoining the Tuolumne branch of the county library, 18636 Main Street. 928-4527.

Calaveras County Senior Center, San Andreas

This 21-year-old center is a central meeting spot for the community. Income from its many room rentals is its main funding source. Organizations such as Hospice of Amador and Calaveras, Habitat for Humanity Calaveras and others rent offices here, in addition to churches and community groups.

Heidi Harding (center) chats with quilters Helen Sumwalt (left) and Sarah Locke

“It’s available to the community for just about anything,” notes Heidi Harding, site coordinator.

Activities include fitness and art classes, bingo, bridge and pinochle sessions, and monthly blood pressure screening and health insurance counseling. On Thursdays, volunteers fold bandages for cancer patients in third-world countries. But the biggest need being met is companionship.

“Seniors can come in, get away from home and just talk with other people. A lot of them are alone or just with their spouse,” Harding says. “Here, they sit and chat and solve the problems of the world.”

About three dozen people stop by for lunch daily – and it’s not restricted to seniors. Adults with developmental disabilities, from Outlook, the Angels Camp WATCH program, come for lunch once a week. The Old Courthouse Quilters, an informal group of needle artists, meet here each Wednesday to eat, sew and chat.

“We’re always looking for new people,” says member Sarah Locke, “so we can hear some new stories.”

Donations and fundraising support the lunch program, including an annual dinner, raffle and silent auction in March. Looking ahead, Harding wants to seek grant funding to perhaps buy a van to bring homebound seniors here, and to offer more Boomer-focused activities, including art and dance. A Zumba class, based on Latin dance moves and wildly popular elsewhere, will start in February.

Says Harding: “Being open and available to more than a single age group just builds relationships and enhances the community.”

Hours: 8am-2pm Monday-Friday, 956 Mountain Ranch Road, lunch 11:30am-1pm, $5. 754-3967,

Murphys Senior Center

The purpose of this grant-funded center is “to alleviate loneliness and provide programs for the community,” explains Margo Mohn, former site supervisor. Run by a community nonprofit, the 18-month-old center is housed in a portable building adjoining Faith Lutheran Church.

Karen Gilmore shows Edith Massod the Murphys center's computer

With 15 instructors, numerous other volunteers and an active board, Mohn notes, “It’s almost a missionary effort to keep people engaged and active.”

The small center serves about 400 people monthly, says site coordinator Karen Gilmore. Fitness classes, community speakers, book and discussion groups, health education, art and cooking classes, bingo games, movies and more take place here. Three food programs operate at the site, says executive director Steve Shetzline. A bakery donates bread distributed each Monday, free groceries are provided to income-eligible seniors on the first Thursday of each month, and the site houses a food pantry.

The center grew from an effort that began several years ago with surveys about community needs, says Mohn, former senior programs director for Calaveras County. The end result is a welcoming environment with a focus on fitness – both mental and physical – and friendship.

Longtime Murphys resident Ethel Jolly, 93, has been a regular for the past year. “It’s nice just being with other people,” she says. “Playing cards, having lunch together just makes me cheerful. I really enjoy it.”

Newcomer Bettie Friend, 83, agrees. After moving from Bolinas to Murphys six months ago she discovered the center’s free exercise classes – and a warm welcome. “Everybody’s so friendly here.”

Hours: 9am-4pm Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Mitchler Avenue and Highway 4. Call by 10:30am to order lunch, $4 per person, 728-1672,

© 2010 Friends and Neighbors

Nancy Abbott
By Nancy Abbott December 15, 2010 13:45