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Community Center gets a new name

Older baby boomers may think they're too young to participate in "senior citizen'' programs.

The Willmar Community Center hopes to change that perception.

The center, formerly known as Willmar Area Senior Citizens Community Center, has changed its name and is reaching out to the 50-and-over crowd with new activities, events and programs.

"What we're trying to do by changing the name is that we want to make sure that everybody is welcome out here from the baby boomer generation all the way up,'' said LeAnne Freeman, recreation supervisor and coordinator at the center. "We're doing programming that we hope to reflect that.''

The center has an up-to-date computer lab with five computer stations and offers computer classes.

The center began a monthly health and wellness series co-sponsored by Rice Memorial Hospital.

In addition, the center has a wood shop, exercise room with treadmills and stationary bikes, a library and coffee bar.

Audrey Nelsen, a member of the Community Center Council, said Freeman has been researching activities offered by area centers that are also trying to incorporate the different generations of older adults and seniors. She said suggestions from the community are welcome.

"I think we also have to look to the community to see what the community wants to do out here, too, and how some of the different agencies can take advantage of the space we have out here. I hope there will be suggestions as we go forward,'' said Nelsen.

The name was changed on Dec. 1 after the council, which is the center's governing board, spent much of 2008 discussing strategic planning and the future of the center.

The council set a goal of reaching out to the community and the boomer generation -- those who the U.S. Census Bureau says were born between 1946 and 1964.

According to the Census Bureau, the number of people 65 and older will increase by 85 percent in the next decade. The country will have four generations of seniors: 50s to late 60s; late 60s to early 70s (mid-range); late 70s to 80s; and 90s and above, said Freeman.

"That's something the country has really not had before,'' she said.

In a survey last year, the council asked community members what they thought the center should be used for. The different generations indicated they preferred different activities.

"Our younger generation of seniors doesn't like to do what our older generation of seniors likes to do. They are always the ones (that say) I'm not old enough. I'm not old enough to come out there,'' said Freeman. "So when we did the survey, those were some of the responses we received from the younger ones, and even from some of the mid-range seniors. They thought the name should be changed.''

Freeman, a baby boomer, said she doesn't think of herself as a senior.

"I think of myself just as an older adult that likes to do things that are above and beyond bingo,'' she said.

Council member Arlen Sjerven believes boomers' reluctance to think of themselves as senior citizens has much to do with their thinking of themselves as being very active.

"They really don't see themselves as a senior citizen,'' said Sjerven. "I think they have a picture of a senior citizen being much older and they have a tough time relating to that ... so we're trying to make this facility welcoming and inviting to that group through activities and programs.''

He said seniors are very active at the center.

"I'm in that group, too, and I resist calling myself a senior citizen,'' he said. "I'm beyond the baby boomers, but still very active in the community in a variety of ways. I can understand the name change being very appropriate for this time and place. I think it'll work to the center's and baby boomers' advantage.''

The center opened in February 1992 in the former Elks Club building located at 624 Business Highway 71 N.E., after the Senior Citizens Club approached former Mayor Ole Reynolds about the possibility of establishing a senior center.

The club had been meeting in the basement of the former Lutheran Social Service building, located on downtown Becker Avenue. Freeman said the steps were hard for the seniors.

Reynolds appointed a committee, which researched and put together a proposal, when the Elks building came up for sale. The city agreed to buy the building if the committee would raise $100,000 toward the purchase price of over $300,000.

The committee raised the money and the city bought the building. The city guaranteed the senior club would have priority use of the building. The goal was to provide programming and a center for the senior population.

Besides senior activities, the center is being used for intergenerational programs, workshops and special events. The number of local service clubs renting meeting space has increased from 10 in 1992 to 22 today. The center is a meal site for Lutheran Social Service, and the community garden is now located on the center grounds.

Changing the name of the center meant some soul-searching by council members. But Freeman and others believe the change will help the center attract people of all ages.

"I know there is and has been a fear from some of the older seniors that we're going to forget about them and we're pushing them out because we want the younger ones in here. That's not what we're looking at,'' said Freeman.

"We're still looking at planning programs for all ages. We're not going to forget where we came from. We're not going to forget the older seniors. We're still going to plan what their needs and wants are. But we just want to be able to reach out and include everybody in the package out here.''