by Carla Occaso
MONTPELIER — A small group founded the Montpelier Senior Activity Center on Barre Street in 1967. So it is fitting, in celebrating its 50th year with a Gala Senior Prom June 10, the theme will be ‘The Summer of Love’.
Also fitting since more and more members are baby boomers — the generation who spawned The Summer of Love.
The center has become one of the most lively and happening places downtown. It may sound counter intuitive, but on a recent day when I walked in, there was a bustle of people — a group upstairs hearing a presentation on money scams, a yoga class upstairs, some people playing cards and another group doing crafts in the sun splashed art room. But it began much smaller.
In the Beginning
“It started out as a little club in a much smaller facility where people would gather to play cards and do activities,” said Director Janna Clar in a recent interview with The Bridge. Originally located at 18 Barre Street with 60 members, membership soon swelled to 200. The center moved to 28 School St. in 1975 and to 58 Barre St. in 1981. And this year, membership has topped over 1,100. Now, the center is once again under consideration for expansion. Clar credits high participation to interesting and useful services and classes provided to a maturing population of Central Vermont residents, primarily in Montpelier, but many members live in surrounding towns.
The center also recently merged with the City of Montpelier Recreation Department and Parks and Trees Department to streamline administrative functions in 2017.
But things haven’t always been smooth sailing.
The Fire and Reconstruction
In December 2009, a fire forced the closure of the building and a relocation to St. Michael’s School next door. The fire had caused “pretty extensive damage to the lower level of the building and collapsed the floor to the mezzanine level,” said Gregg Gossens, founding partner of gBa (Gossens Bachman Architects) — who had worked with a team to design an update for the center for the City prior to the fire.
The fire damage “made the need to address the facility much more urgent,” Clar said. She credited the late Garth Genge, formerly Community Development Specialist with the City of Montpelier, and other committed community members with pulling together federal funds and grants, and teaming up with a housing organization and the Vermont Division of Historic Preservation to refurbish 58 Barre Street, which was built around 1932. But they did far more than simply refurbish. A team created 14 apartments in the upper floors managed by Montpelier Housing Authority, rehabilitated a common area for residents, renovated the senior activity center area and kept an existing playground.
Architect Gossens took the lead in designing a rehabilitated version of 58 Barre Street.
“We were asked to weigh-in on what could be done with that building some time ago,” Gossens told The Bridge by phone May 12. “We made a few proposals in a report what it would take to rehabilitate it for any kind of use. One included housing and an improving the senior center.”
Gossens said he and a team of architects laid the groundwork for a complete overhaul. Gossens said it was a beautiful old building that needed to be updated. “It was an energy hog. It was underutilized, but it was a sound building that just needed a lot of updating.”
So Gossens presented a plan to city council and then they decided to take it to the next step and put the project in the hands of city staff, which at that time was Garth Genge. Genge, along with development consultant Jeff Kantor worked with Gossens to come up with presentations and paperwork to go after grants.
Engelberth construction was hired to do the construction.
“I am just thrilled that the stars aligned themselves to make better utilization of what is a new and improved senior center. What a great match to have senior housing above it,” Gossens said, adding, “I can’t emphasize how important Garth Genge was to this. He was great. He was the catalyst that brought this to fruition. He was the one who put it all together.
Construction was complete by 2012.
Once a new building was in place, new people came on board with new ideas that have led to even more revitalization. Janna Clar started as director in 2011.
“After we moved back here to this beautiful, new, bright space, membership began growing. The senior population is actually growing faster than some other nearby towns,” Clar said “We saw a rapid increase in programming. We add classes each quarter.” Classes more than tripled in number, from around 20 to around 70 now. Most popular are the movement classes, but other offerings in a wide variety of disciplines are also well-attended. Clar said most of the time class ideas come to the center from community members who are interested in teaching. “A lot of that is due to what a vibrant community we have. People step forward to offer things.”
Since merging with the Recreation Department, and Parks and Trees Department, program ideas have also expanded. “We have an opportunity to serve people throughout their whole lifespan,” said Dan Groberg, director of programs and development. “We have been cross training our staff to be able to serve the senior center and the recreation department. We work as a team” (with Parks and Trees Director Geoff Beyer and Director of Recreation Arne McMullen).
For example, families with young children would register for summer swimming lessons at 58 Barre Street, but young children won’t run amok during senior-only activities and meals. Some activities are open to all, however.
The most popular category of class is yoga, with 19 classes a week, Groberg said. There are 550 people enrolled in classes in all. Other classes include strength training, writing, language, a film series with Rick Winston (former owner of the Savoy Theatre), Tai Chi and calligraphy. Writing classes have led to a literary magazine called Sunflower, which is supported by Groberg and writing teacher Maggie Thompson.
Joan Barrett, also a member, leads an exercise class called Living Strong (using free weights and balance techniques) that has 30 students. She also takes in yoga and participates in other programs. “It is great for fitness. They have wonderful programs. There is something for everyone. There’s almost too much to take in.”
“Over 80 percent of our participants tell us they feel healthier as a result of the classes,” Groberg said. The average age for members is 69, which is younger than the average senior center.
And some of the programs take participants out of the building — even out of the country. Recently center members have been going on trips. In fact, Clar just returned from a trip to China.
“We designed programming to dovetail with the China trip,” Clar said. In the fall we did a Rick Winston Film Series by Chinese director Zhang Yimou. They also offered a Chinese language class and other China-oriented activities. Then, this spring they visited China for 10 days, visiting the Great Wall, The Forbidden City and other places. Clar has a background in the subject having taught Chinese language the University of Massachusetts a while back.
Other previous trip destinations include Sedona, Arizona and Italy. Future, smaller trips include a Montreal museum trip June 1 and a Father’s Day trip to Fenway Park June 25.
“We encourage people to come check it out because it is not what you would think it is,” Groberg said, suggesting people “get over their fear of coming to a place called a senior center. It is a vibrant place. ‘Senior’ is not a four-letter word.”
“We are really excited about the future we see demand continue to grow,” Clar said. “We hope to meet demand as it grows and we really enjoy being a part of making Montpelier be a great place to live and a great place to age.”
Clar also noted the volunteerism is incredible with over 150 volunteers including the FEAST meal program. Volunteers help with everything from trip planning, mailings and instruction.
And the participation leads to social enrichment. People can come do activities with existing friends and make new ones.
The added participation has inspired Clar and Groberg to think about ways to expand. “We are fortunate to have more participation and more resources, but we feel our staff is too small for what we are doing. Fundraising for future development continues to be a top goal, but fortunately some very generous donors have stepped forward. The center received a bequeathed $450,000 from Bob and Christina Jackman when Christina passed away a few years ago. Many people remember Bob Jackman, a senior center stalwart, who was the center’s program director from 1985-1997.
“We are really proud of our history and excited to build on it,” Groberg said.
‘Summer of Love’ Senior Prom
Which leads to the upcoming 50th anniversary celebration and “senior prom” fundraiser on June 10. U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy will attend. Clar and Groberg will premiere a video about the history of the center. Fred Wilbur (former owner of the Buch Spieler record store) will be the disc jockey. To play into the ‘Summer of Love’ theme, people are invited to wear hippie or other 60s attire, or any clothes they choose. There will be a nice meal and an auction.
50th Anniversary Gala and Senior Prom Saturday, June 10, 5 to10:30 p.m. at the Capitol Plaza Hotel in Montpelier. Expect Music, dancing, food and fun, with a 60s theme to celebrate our founding in 1967. Start at 5 p.m. for appetizers and dinner and a special program to celebrate. Senator Patrick Leahy is scheduled to appear. Tickets including dinner are $50. Or come after dinner for a dessert buffet and dancing to music by DJ Fred Wilbur. Tickets for dessert and dancing only are $20. All will enjoy a cash bar, fun photo booth, silent auction, and wonderful 60s-themed decorations.
Members Speak Out
From the video to premiere at the senior prom, Teo Zagar, videographer, interviewed several people who are deeply involved in the center. Below are a tiny portion of the responses from two very involved members.
Bob Barrett, member, chair of advisory and program committees
Barrett: We’ve lived in Montpelier for about 15 years and we’ve been members for almost this entire time … The impact on my life is that it has kept me very active after working. When you retire, you are looking for interesting things to do. You’re looking to stay active. Some of us have a creative impulse so you are looking for ways to be creative. So this has become an avenue for me to do those things
Maggie Thompson, writing teacher
Thompson: Those who are writing memoir have lived long lives. One of our participants is 96. A lot of them are in their 60s, 70s or in their 80s. So they have a vast array of experience and it is really rewarding for them to put it on paper. It is a way for them to gain a perspective on their life from looking back. And what did an experience give them? Other benefits are the social benefits. Many of the participants in my classes return quarter after quarter. And then there is also an influx of new faces each time so it makes for a dynamic mix. Friendships form. Other interests evolve and there is a really nice rapport of respect and camaraderie. And I think they have a good time.
Events that happened outside Montpelier in 1967:
- The Summer of Love is held in San Francisco.
- Kathy Switzer, wearing bib No. 261, was the first woman to run in the Boston Marathon even though the marathon’s official, Jock Semple, tried to push her out.
- Elvis Presley married Priscilla Ann Beaulieu at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas.
- Ronald Reagan, past movie actor and future President of the United States, is inaugurated the new governor of California.
- Louis Leakey announces the discovery of pre-human fossils in Kenya; he names the species Kenyapithecus africanus.
- The United States, Soviet Union and United Kingdom sign the Outer Space Treaty.
- The Jimi Hendrix Experience release their debut album, Are You Experienced.
- The Beatles release Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, nicknamed “The Soundtrack of the Summer of Love”; it will be number one on the albums charts throughout the summer of 1967.
- US Navy Lieutenant Commander John McCain was captured in a lake in Hanoi after his Navy warplane was downed by Northern Vietnamese army.
- Race riots in the United States spread to Washington, D.C..
- The musical Hair opens off-Broadway. It moves to Broadway the following April.
- Approximately 70,000 Vietnam War protesters march in Washington, D.C. and rally at the Lincoln Memorial; in a successive march that day, 50,000 people march to the Pentagon, where Allen Ginsberg, Abbie Hoffman, and Jerry Rubin symbolically chant to “levitate” the building and “exorcise the evil within.”