Young at HeART
It turns out that some of the most vibrant artists in the community can be found at the Hancock County Senior Center, where "expressing yourself" is a daily event.
- story and photos by Karen Fineran
The Hancock County Senior Center, established in 1972, provides companionship for Hancock County’s active seniors in a comfortable, informal and fun social setting. The Senior Center contains a dining area, a recreational TV and reading lounge, and several arts and crafts studios. The Center provides nutritious hot breakfasts and lunches and daily transportation for seniors from their homes to the Center and back, as well as to daily or weekly errands like the grocery store, pharmacy, bank, post office, bill paying, doctors’ offices, and even group field trips to casino buffets or other restaurants.
Since the first year of its existence, the Senior Center has operated an arts program for its seniors, providing instruction and materials for a variety of arts and crafts, including oil and acrylic painting, ceramics, quilt-making, crocheting, and various seasonal crafts. The program is run with county funds, funds from Bay St. Louis and Waveland, donations of supplies and materials from private donors, and typically a small donation (usually $1 per month per class) from participating seniors. The class instructors are Senior Center staff members and outside volunteers.
The majority of the seniors at the Center – approximately 40 to 50 persons spend most of their days there – actively participate in the arts program, and many of them like to come every day. Typically, they have had little or no art training or education prior to beginning classes at the Center. That hasn’t hindered their creativity.
At least one long-time program participant has been involved in the Senior Center since its inception. Artist Theresa James, a Galveston native, moved from New Orleans to Bay St. Louis shortly after Hurricane Camille, and fell hard for the Gulf Coast. From 1972 to 1985, she was the Director of the Center’s RSVP (Retired Senior Volunteer Program). After her retirement from that position, she had the time to begin taking the Center’s art classes herself – the first art classes of her life. She dove into the oil painting classes given by her mentor, instructor Carl Baldenhofer (now deceased). Looking up at a painting of Baldenhofer in the studio, James spoke appreciatively of his talent, winsomely recalling how he had inspired her in her painting and taught her the oil techniques that became part of her distinctive style.
James paints colorful folk art depictions of jazz funerals, shrimp boats, cotton fields, and other iconic southern and New Orleans images. In earlier years, as a member of ARTS, Hancock County, James sold her paintings throughout Bay St. Louis galleries and sometimes in New Orleans. While James says that she no longer paints (as of the last several months), items of her work are displayed at Maggie May’s Gallery in Bay St. Louis. James’ favorite painting (sold long ago) is her “Blue Roofs,” which she painted of the tableau of vivid blue-tarped roofs in Bay St. Louis just after Hurricane Katrina.
Another favorite at the Center, artist Lorraine Keyser has only been painting for about three years, and had no art training or experience prior to beginning classes at the Center. She said that the Center has made a huge difference in her life and that it allowed her to come out of her shell. “Now I know everyone. It’s like a family.”
Today, her beautiful oil paintings of the natural wildlife of the Gulf Coast, such as the heron and pelican shown below, are incredible in their likeness to life and their intricate attention to detail. Though her paintings are not currently for sale, some of them have been displayed at the Mandeville Craft Show, and two more of them will be displayed there in October.
Other seniors at the Center can be found chatting amiably around tables, amid piles of cloth squares, bent over their quilts and crocheting, or pouring clay slip into molds, or painting whimsical green-ware forms for ceramic firing.
Arlene Johnson, the Hancock County Senior Center Director since 2001, has been with the Center since 1983, when she started as Program Specialist and ceramics instructor. A certified ceramics teacher, airbrush artist and porcelain doll instructor, and an avid painter herself, Johnson has been involved in the arts most of her life.
The arts program at the Center, Johnson explained, is important to the seniors because it is the fulcrum of their social life and gives them the quality of life and companionship that they may not necessarily enjoy at home. The seniors enjoy seeing their friends at the Center every day, working on projects together, dining together, and often giving the art pieces that they make as gifts to their family, friends and caregivers.
In August 2005, when Hurricane Katrina tore up Bay St. Louis and most of the Gulf Coast, the Center’s arts program was not interrupted for long, though the Center did (inadvertently) become an emergency shelter for Hancock County.
In a breathtaking story, Johnson described the days and weeks after she had decided to ride out the storm at the Center so that she could be on hand if anyone needed her. Though the seniors themselves were evacuated before the storm arrived, a large number of people from the surrounding neighborhoods swarmed into the Center as the flood waters rose. The flood waters rose to the top of the back door step but did not infiltrate the building. In the following days, police cars and school buses began dropping more and more people off at the Center to seek shelter.
For weeks, more than 170 people from all over the county, including very aged seniors, other adults, children, teenagers and babies, crowded into the small hallways and rooms of 601 Bookter Street, sleeping on the bare floors, and waiting in desperation for food, ice, blankets, clothing, Pedialite and other supplies that were dropped off sporadically by volunteers. Soaked and frightened survivors who had been rescued from the flood waters were dropped off at the center wearing only rags, and sometimes still the ropes that had saved them. The building had electricity because of its generator, but the toilets could only be flushed by occupants with bags and buckets of the flood water from outside. The Center’s van was taken out periodically to drive around town foraging for food, supplies and other survivors.
Johnson’s voice was thick with emotion, and she was visibly shaken, as she described how she slept upright for days in a chair near the doors so that she could keep a watch out for confused residents trying to leave or possible intruders trying to enter. Though her own home in town had been flooded and undeniably required her attention, she stayed at the Center because “with so many people under my care, this was where I needed to be.” She still is overwhelmed with gratitude for the volunteers who poured into the community after the hurricane, eventually permitting coast residents to surmount the ordeal and rebuild the community. She shows me an American flag that was hanging outside the Center during the storm, finding a message of hope in its blue field of stars, which remained completely intact, despite the red and white stripes incredibly having formed a solid braided coil from the punishing winds.
For eighty-eight days, the Senior Center served as a makeshift shelter in this fashion, until other places were found for the exhausted inhabitants. Within that timeframe, within the first three months after the storm and before the refugees had moved out, the Center resumed its function of providing hot meals, art classes, transportation, recreation, and shelter to the seniors during the daytime hours. The staff simply was not going to let the seniors go without the encouragement and support they needed during what must have been for many the hardest time of their lives.
The Hancock County Senior Center is located at 601 Bookter Street, at the corner of Old Spanish Trail and Bookter, and is open Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. The program is open to all residents of Hancock County who are 60 or over and who are self-sufficient. (Johnson pointed out that even temporary residents in Hancock County, such as those who may be staying with family or friends here for a few months, are welcomed.) Volunteers are also welcomed if they are interested in teaching classes or otherwise assisting the program. For more information, call the Senior Center at 228-467-9292 or pop in at 601 Bookter to ask about signing up.