Centers continue to help clients despite closure due to pandemic

Sonja Keith
Workers at the Ola and John Hawks Senior Wellness and Activity Center in Conway were “Loving LIFE” as they prepared to hand out meals: kitchen manager Rick Battisto (from left), kitchen employee Velma Davie, director Debra Robinson, health and wellness coordinator Sherri Lachowsky and board member and volunteer James McAlister.

Senior centers throughout the state are closed for now because of the pandemic, but some employees in the 501 are reaching out to clients in creative ways to show them they care.

Debra Robinson, executive director of the Faulkner County Council on Aging Inc., said the centers closed March 16 as a preventative measure to help protect seniors. Transportation for seniors who have ongoing dialysis and cancer treatments is still provided, but center activities – like exercise classes and the Friday night dance – have been suspended until state officials consider it safe for the seniors to return.

In the meantime, employees at the Ola and John Hawks Senior Wellness and Activity Center in Conway are making about 75 calls each week to check in with seniors. Debra said many of those who are called talk about how much they miss the center. “They also call us,” she said, adding that a common question is “When are we going to get to dance again?” or “When will we open up again?”

In addition to the calls, Sherri Lachowsky, health and wellness coordinator at the center, has created a walking group that meets on Mondays and Wednesdays at the Don Owen Sports Complex. She has also conducted virtual exercise classes via Facebook to help keep seniors active.

Debra said with the help of University of Central Arkansas students, the senior program offered Zoom video conference training via Facebook and held a virtual trivia contest. 

On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, seniors can drive through at the centers in Conway, Vilonia and Greenbrier to get a meal. In Conway, about 55 meals are served each day. In Vilonia and Greenbrier, about 30 meals are distributed. “We are particularly doing that for the people who would normally come to the center for lunch,” said Debra. (For more information, including how to register, visit Facebook.com/fcSeniorsAR.)

In addition to the meal, the lunch program gives the seniors something to do as well as provides an opportunity for the center employees to visit with them. Debra said some of the seniors have said even if they didn’t get a meal, it would be nice to have an opportunity to say hi to the staff.

“I get so excited on Monday, Wednesday and Friday,” Debra said about the drive-thru meal program and the opportunity to let the seniors know how much the center workers care for them. “It’s the highlight of my day and I want it to be the highlight of their day.”

The drive-thru meals are in addition to the center’s ongoing Meals on Wheels Program. Participants receive hot meals on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and frozen meals on Tuesday and Thursday. 

The Faulkner County centers provide almost 2,100 meals weekly through the Meals on Wheels Program and the drive-thru lunch program.

Debra said the clients have really missed the socialization that the center provides, but with a little bit of creativity they have managed to maintain some activities. For example, the line dance group meets once a week at an outdoor pavilion at a local park. “They’ve been creative on their own,” Debra said. “They do miss it so much.”

Financially, the centers are managing and able to keep their employees, thanks to federal assistance. Debra said the center has also received donations – which are always accepted and appreciated – for the home-delivered meal program. “That’s helped out a lot while we have been shut down.”

Like the seniors, Debra looks forward to the day that the center will reopen. She shared that one of the seniors commented, “I will never, ever take this place for granted again.”

For more information on the senior centers in Faulkner County, call 501.327.2895 or visit fcSeniors.com or Facebook.com/fcSeniorsAR. Updates will be posted on Facebook and on the website.