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Newark Senior Center celebrates its anniversary

May 10, 2016 08:55AM ● Published by Richard Gaw

Carla Grygiel, the current executive director of the Newark Senior Center, with previous executive directors Margaret Catts, and K. Jean Williams at the gala to celebrate the 50th anniversary.

By Steven Hoffman
Staff Writer

Carla Grygiel, the fourth executive director in the fifty-year history of the Newark Senior Center, is fond of the Robert Browning poem that begins, “Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be…”

That quote is the title of the Charles Parks sculpture at the north entrance of the senior center's home on White Chapel Drive. To Grygiel and the staff at the Newark Senior Center, the sculpture is also a symbol of an active life. The idea that “the best is yet to be” is something of a mission statement.

We’re celebrating the past 50 years this year, but we’re also looking forward to the future,” Grygiel explained during an interview in March. “We don’t want anyone to think that the best years are behind them. We think the best is yet to be.”

For the Newark Senior Center, with its ever-expanding list of programs and services, the best is definitely yet to be. It is the only nationally accredited senior center in Delaware, and it has long been a model for what a senior center can be—a trusted place for information and resources, a gathering spot for friends, and a hub of activity in the community.

Grygiel talked about the impact that the senior center, with its emphasis on healthy aging, has had on the Newark community and beyond.

We have more than 4,000 members, but we’ve touched the lives of so many more people,” Grygiel explained. The senior center has approximately 70,000 visits a year, attracting guests from throughout New Castle County as well as nearby Pennsylvania and Maryland.

It is a busy place,” Grygiel said. “We serve about 800 unique people each month. Seventeen percent of our members are under the age of 65. We offer programs and exercise classes that span the entire spectrum. People love to come here. They are happy to see their friends. For many, it’s a regular part of their lives.”

One of the people who makes the senior center a part of his life is Carlos Castro. He exercises at the senior center’s fitness center three times a week to help with the joint pain from arthritis.

I love this place,” Castro said. “I can stay busy here all day because they have so many activities.”

Health and wellness is a priority for many people as they age. The Newark Senior Center meets the needs for more exercise opportunities with a large fitness center that includes seven treadmills, recumbent bikes, ellipticals, and machines for stretching, full-body Nautilus, and more. There are exercise classes for every level of ability, ranging from arm-chair exercises to Pilates to strength training. Many people also enjoy exercising in the warm waters of the senior center's pool, which has always been a popular way for members to stay in shape.

Merrily Schiavone not only enjoys activities at the senior center, she also works on the senior center's advertising and marketing committee. Schiavone takes strength training classes at the senior center to stay in shape. She likes the supportive environment and friendly atmosphere.

You can always find a friendly face here,” she said.

The senior center hosts many different clubs and classes that offer enrichment, including everything from book groups to Bible study programs to art classes. Many experts in specific fields, including some University of Delaware professors, volunteer their time to lead these enrichment classes.

The Newark Senior Center started offering computer classes as far back as 1998. Today, there are numerous classes that allow visitors to appreciate and enjoy modern technology including classes for those who prefer Macs and those who prefer PCs. The Senior Surfers Computer Club is one of the largest clubs at the center.

Doug Gibney, who belongs to the computer club, said that there are volunteers who help assist with the classes, and they are always willing to help out anyone who has questions or issues.

Grygiel said that she is very proud of the computer offerings, which includes a state-of-the-art computer center.

Our computer club has a lot of amazing volunteers,” Grygiel said.

The senior center's staff also arranges to bring in speakers on various topics like retirement planning and social security planning. There are a variety of support groups. The senior center has a full-time social services director who can help meet the needs of older residents in the community who need assistance in a variety of areas. And if someone suggests a new club or activity, or asks for a specific program, it is taken under consideration by the staff.

We’re very responsive to our members,” Grygiel said, explaining that a Early Memory Loss program was established in response to needs in 2015.

Many of the activities at the senior center are aimed at allowing people to make or maintain social connections, and many of the connections extend beyond the walls of the senior center as longtime friendships are formed.

Food is a part of that camaraderie. Meals are freshly prepared in the kitchen every day, with Chef Raymond Williams leading this effort. Williams joined the senior center more than six years ago, and he and his experienced staff take great pride in preparing healthy meal options for the community.

Williams and his team also lead the way on one of the largest and most important endeavors for the Newark Senior Center, which is the Meals on Wheels program that provides food to residents who need it. They serve about 36,000 meals through the Meals on Wheels program each year.

Grygiel explained that, with people living longer, many older men and women are able to live on their own, but may not be able to handle cooking or grocery shopping so Meals on Wheels is an invaluable option.

Our demand for Meals on Wheels has increased by 11 percent,” she explained.

From the very beginning, volunteers have been an important part of the Newark Senior Center. There are only about a dozen full-time employees and 11 part-time employees at the Newark Senior Center so a considerable amount of work falls to volunteers.

Everybody pitches in and helps out,” Grygiel explained. “We have a lot of great volunteers to make it all work. We have all kinds of volunteers—about 400 of them. People in this community are willing to share their time and talents.”

As a member of the senior center's board of directors, Ed Kurtz is one of those volunteers.

The thing that I like most is that it gives back to seniors in the community,” he said.

Community” is a very important word at the Newark Senior Center. There is definitely a strong sense of community among the members, but the senior center is also a vital part of the Newark community. Efforts are always made to involve the greater community in different events and activities.

Each April and October, for example, people in the community donate everything from clothing to electronics to appliances for the senior center's spring and fall flea markets. Proceeds help to support the Newark Senior Center’s activities. The flea market raises about $50,000, and it helps people clean out their garages and put the items to good use.

We’re constantly trying to raise money to support what we do here,” Grygiel said.

She is thankful for, but not surprised by, the support that the senior center receives from the community.

I think people see what the investment in the senior center is doing for the community,” Grygiel explained.

To mark the 50th anniversary this year, a number of special events are planned. A gala celebration to commemorate the 50th anniversary was held in early April, while a special 50th anniversary ice cream social took place in early May. Another highlight during the year, will be a summer concert series, which takes place between June and August.

People are always excited to play for the community,” Grygiel explained.

Grygiel is one of just four executive directors in the 50-year history of the senior center, and she said that she is honored to follow the three previous executive directors, Gertrude Johnson, Margaret Catts, and K. Jean Williams. Each person left their own mark on the senior center. Johnson served from 1967 to 1981, coming to the senior center from the University of Delaware’s Home Economics Department. She helped guide the senior center during its earliest days, establishing numerous programs and expanding staff and the number of members. Johnson also served as a mentor to Catts, who was the executive director from 1981 to 1997. Catts also had a background with the University of Delaware Home Economics Department. She and the board saw the need to increase the help available to seniors in the community and launched a campaign to raise money for a new building—the model facility on Chapel Drive that opened in 1996.

Williams, who was the executive director from 1997 to 2006, developed a strategic plan for the future. She also oversaw an expansion of what was then the newly built facility. A generous bequest by Warner Perry enabled the center to add an education wing, a fitness center, and additional capacity in the food services area.

The Newark Senior Center has benefited from the continuity and stability of the staff through the years, but it is has also been vitally important, Grygiel said, to have a board of directors with the vision necessary to continue to allow the senior center to evolve.

Having the support of the board over the years has been very important,” she explained. “We are positioned to serve the community. We have programs that appeal to everyone. I wish every community has a senior center like this. It’s a great gathering place—a place where people can stay connected. We have a great staff, dedicated volunteers, and wonderful members.”

To contact Staff Writer Steven Hoffman, email editor@chestercounty.com.

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