Seniors celebrate the first 40
Obson Blake isn't from Kenai, but sometimes he wishes he was.
Although he lives in Houston, Texas, Blake makes his way up to Kenai every summer, and this time his trip fortunately coincided with the Kenai Senior Center's 40th anniversary party.
"I've considered moving up here just for the senior citizen benefits," Blake said while socializing with friends during the luau-themed Friday get-together. "We don't have anything like this down in Houston."
Neither the senior center's users nor its staff take this fact for granted. While the center has modest beginnings-it was first housed in a construction trailer in November 1971 - it has blossomed into a first-class facility that serves 40,000 meals a year to its 1,500 active clients, in addition to providing driving services, exercise classes, and recreational activities.
"I believe that our mission back then is still the same today," said executive director Rachael Craig. "Even more so, because our senior population is growing and it's vital that we have a senior center where they can come and enjoy health and wellness, give back to the community, and socialize."
The center's dining room was packed to capacity Friday evening as lei-sporting seniors chatted with friends while digging into roasted pig, grilled pineapple, and halibut dip. Live bluegrass music filled the air, and the senior center's line dancers took the stage in their Hawaiian grass skirts to entertain the crowd.
"We love it here," said Jimmie English, speaking for herself and her husband Dan English. "They have the ability to make everybody who walks in here feel so special. They're wonderful people. It's just a great place to be."
The Englishs started coming to the senior center 15 years ago when Dan retired. Jimmie became involved in quilting and line dancing, while Dan chose to volunteer as a driver for the center.
"It's a second home where you always feel welcome," Dan said. "They always have a lot of activities for you to be involved in so that you get on your feet, out of the chair, and out from sitting in front of the TV."
Bill Milewski and his wife Marge Milewski pointed out that many seniors would go hungry without the home and congregate meals services provided by the center, nor would many be able to afford engaging in the activities offered if they had to seek them out independently.
The center not only offers physical resources like food, but also provides fellowship and emotional support for seniors who sometimes have nowhere else to turn.
"The people that come here find friendship," Craig said. "We're kind of like a family; an extended family, if you will. Sometimes we're the only family that they have."
Craig has been working in senior care for the past 25 years and has been the director at the Kenai Senior Center since 2000. She says the center has little to no turnover because of the genuine investment the staff has in providing services to Kenai's aging population.
"This is one of the most positive senior centers I have ever been in," Craig said. "We have great staff that works as a team. I might be the executive director, but we work as a team and we share the load."
Though it is sometimes sad to see her friends and clients pass away, Craig considers it an honor to be able to help her seniors enjoy life, even to the very end.
"We get to know these seniors, and yes, it's sad when they pass on," she said, "but if we're able to help ease their pain or help make their life have a better quality of life until that end, I think we've done our job."