Good Neighbor - November 2019
- Story by Lisa Monti, photos by Lisa Monti and Ellis Anderson
Arlene Johnson says the years she’s been working at Hancock County Senior Citizen Center have just “flown by.” She started out teaching ceramics at the center and has worked her way up to being director.
During her 35-plus years spent there, she has helped improve the quality of life for countless seniors who have taken advantage of the beneficial services offered by the center. The goal, she says, is to “keep our seniors independent.”
The program itself was started in 1972. The building at 601 Booker St. has housed the program since 1999. From the beginning, the county’s senior program was a model for Mississippi, Arlene said.
“We were number one in the state and here we are going strong.” Though the services and staffing have changed, the goal was and still is focused on giving seniors quality of life.
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“When they walk in the door, it’s like walking into their second home,” she says.
One enthusiastic senior, a regular at the center, shared a story about a friend who was trying to get in touch with her but didn’t have an address or phone number. The friend knew that she was a regular at the center and went there to reconnect.
“I always say our seniors are Hancock County’s most prized possessions,” says Arlene. “I have learned so much from them over the years, just listening to their stories.”
The director has known clients who worked in cotton fields, in politics, as doctors, lawyers and school administrators. “They’re from so many different walks of life but when they’re here, they’re all family,” she says.
Arlene, a Bay St. Louis native, has two adult children, Amy Johnson and Andrew Johnson, daughter-in-law Sarah Johnson and grandchildren Juvenal, Ava, A.J. and Jace. But her extended family at the center is much larger.
More than 200 seniors are registered at the Senior Center, and between 35 and 45 come every weekday. Any resident of Hancock County 60 and older is eligible to take advantage of the center’s services. The Hancock County Human Resource Agency is the senior center’s sponsoring agency.
Clients are served breakfast and lunch during the week, and they have time each day to socialize and go to classes to learn quilting, crocheting, ceramics or oil painting. They can choose to make small donations: $2 a month for classes and 50 cents for each meal. But the donations are totally voluntary, says Arlene, who still teaches ceramics on top of her duties as director.
More than one of the center’s seniors have asked Arlene to never retire, because according to them, she’s known for going above and beyond. They describe her as kind, loving, considerate and highly efficient. Arlene is quick to share praise. She’s aided by staff members Mel Raboteau and site manager Michael Robertson. Jimmy Rouse has been driving the CTA bus for 25 years. David Payne also is a CTA bus driver.
“We also have transportation throughout the county Monday through Friday,” she said. “We pick seniors up at their door, bring them to the center, and take them on any errands: to the bank, post office, doctor’s appointments or the pharmacy.
Residents who move into the local nursing home are also provided transportation to and from the center so they can continue their activities and socializing with friends.
One reason for the loyalty is the comfort older people feel there sharing with friends and staff. “If they have problems, they come to me. They are that comfortable under that roof. I just love them.”
Sometimes the love follows them home. The center is next door to the community garden which donates vegetables to the center. “In the fall we make soup every Friday and send it home with the seniors so they have an extra something for the cold weather,” Arlene said.
While Arlene’s devotion to the seniors is evident every day, the holidays are a special time to be together. On Thanksgiving Day she cooks a big meal for clients who don’t have a place to go. She picks up those who don’t have a way to get to the center and welcomes neighbors of clients who are alone to join in.
“I feel like I’m blessed to have Thanksgiving with them,” she says.
Another special event started seven years ago is the Hancock County Senior Citizen Prom, which is a “super duper” party with dancing, a special meal and door prizes donated by local businesses. It’s one special way to brighten the lives of seniors who are often alone.
“It’s awesome,” said Arlene, who is co-chair of the prom committee.
In-house programs that Arlene schedules provide information to clients on health and financial matters, nutrition and other helpful topics. She’s also a member of the Seniors and Law Enforcement Together council which presents programs to the seniors on things such as fraud and gun safety.
But it’s not all about seniors receiving information, care and companionship. Under Arlene’s direction, seniors have opportunities to continue giving and serving the community. During the holidays, the seniors hold a toy drive for needy children in Hancock County along with the Misfits Car Cruisers, a local car club.
The senior quilters are currently making lap throws for nursing home residents for Christmas. “It’s just a little something seniors can do for others,” she said.
Although Arlene and the staff at the senior center help out their clients in many ways, she hopes others would see the benefit of helping, even in small ways. “I wish that people would look at our elderly a little bit differently. Sometimes a smile does wonders for them.”