By Emily Siner/ For CU-CitizenAccess.org — Irene Phillips doesn’t do things half-heartedly.
She doesn’t just sing in her church choir – she’s one of the lead singers. She doesn’t just attend meetings for her church’s women’s ministry and two regional church associations – she’s on the board.
So it comes as no surprise that Phillips, who is 72 years old and proud of it, is the president of Douglass Seniors, a group of more than 80 community members who meet in northeast Champaign to exercise, learn new skills and socialize.
“Some of our members join but they really don’t participate,” she said. “I became active, because that’s just the way I am. If I’m going to be a part of something, then I give it my best.”
Most seniors’ events – from their meetings on the first Monday of each month to the exercise class three times a week – are held in Douglass Annex, a small building in the Douglass Park complex.
The building site, located at Fifth and Grove Streets in north Champaign, began as a grocery store in a segregated African American neighborhood, according to a history of Douglass Park provided by the Champaign Park District. The park district obtained the land and building from the city in 1970, remodeled it and opened it in 1978.
Now, the building hosts up to four programs a day geared towards community members 50 years old and over. About half of the active participants are retired, said Darius White, the new Douglass Park senior program coordinator.
For Phillips, retirement spurred her into involvement at Douglass Annex. She left her career with the state of Illinois at the age of 60 after holding jobs in several agencies. Her husband passed away in 1989, and her four children are grown.
“You need something to fill the void,” she said. “You can go fall into empty nest syndrome if you want to, but if you stay busy, you won’t have time.”
Health and fellowship
On a recent Friday morning, retiree Dollie Anderson pulled a chair into the middle of Douglass Annex’s activity room. A painting of Frederick Douglass, the building’s namesake, gazed from one of the walls at her and a few other seniors.
A TV in front of the room began to play an hour-long chair exercise routine, showing the seniors how to work their leg joints or stretch their shoulders. Anderson has attended three chair exercise sessions a week, weather permitting, ever since her knee gave out several years ago, she said.
The sessions are a valuable resource for seniors who want to stay active, Phillips said. She had attended the chair exercise classes at Provena’s Center For Healthy Aging in Urbana, but she stopped because of the price, which is now $25 a month, according to Provena’s website. At Douglass Annex, members can attend TV-guided sessions for free.
The center also hosts classes to teach seniors new skills, like learning to quilt or to use a computer.
“Some women that had never sewn before now know how to sew, which can be a benefit right now with the prices of clothes,” Phillips said.
Anderson said she also enjoys the Douglass Seniors’ monthly “mystery trips,” when about 10 of them get on a bus for the day without knowing where they’re headed. It’s taken them to museums in Chicago, the zoo in Bloomington and a riverboat in Peoria. Once, she said, they went to a winery.
“It gives them that atmosphere of adventure without having to do too much, but still having that option of doing something outside the box,” said White, who plans the trips.
The seniors who want more adventure also take a larger trip annually. This year, they are heading to South Dakota for a week to visit the Badlands and Mount Rushmore.
Other senior events at the Annex or neighboring community center include weekly bingo; a “tom thumb wedding” fundraiser, where children dress up as the bride and groom; hat shows – the next one is in honor of Mother’s Day; an annual style show, where seniors are the models; and seasonal potlucks. The last one, in late February, was in honor of Black History Month.
For Anderson, the Annex isn’t the site of her whole social life, but exercise and bingo keeps her busy, she said.
“We stick together”
Much of the Champaign Park District’s senior programming pulls participants from both Douglass Annex and Hays Recreation Center, a building about two miles away on Church Street that also used to be a grocery store.
“It’s our job to provide comprehensive recreation centers for the community, and that means all ages,” said park district executive director Bobbie Herakovich.
The facilities are set up for seniors who are still active but somewhat isolated, she said, giving them a chance to socialize, to focus on their health and wellness and to keep up their independent living skills.
The park district spends between $24,000 and $28,000 on the Annex annually, according to its budget. The district recently replaced the Annex’s furnace and air conditioning system, and it will be adding air conditioning to Douglass Community Center, which hosts some of the seniors’ larger events, like the fashion show.
Douglass and Hays also collect membership fees – $20 a year – and fundraise to supplement funding from the park district. Both buildings have membership meetings at which members bring ideas for events they’d like to see.
At Douglass meetings, members also celebrate birthdays each month and send get-well cards to those who are ill. Phillips said she recently missed a meeting due to a family emergency and got a phone call after asking if she was OK.
“I have benefited just from the camaraderie, the fellowship, the friendships that I’ve made,” she said. “It’s like adding to an extended family now.”
Phillips knows how to keep herself surrounded by people. She has two children and some grandchildren who live in town and an active social life at her church. But not everyone is so fortunate, she said, and that’s where Douglass Annex comes in.
“A lot of seniors spend a lot of time being alone, when your last days should be your best,” she said.