A group of focused-looking seniors gathers in a light-filled room in Midtown Harrisburg to practice tai-chi.
Outside the room, a spirited game of Pokeno (a poker/lotto hybrid) is in progress. Smiles break out on the faces of the card players, who jibe each other and pantomime scowls when someone cleans up.
I’m at the Heinz-Menaker Senior Center to get an insider’s look at a place that, to be honest, I hardly noticed when I drove past numerous times before today.
The center, which was founded more than 40 years ago, hums with activity. It’s a Wednesday, the day the center offers a food pantry in partnership with the Central PA Food Bank. Heinz-Menaker also runs a Meals on Wheels program and a supplemental offering for the homebound, but the center’s core services are visible through its senior programming.
As Les Ford, Heinz-Menaker’s affable executive director, takes me around for a tour, he runs through the various activities they offer. Tuesdays and Thursdays are chair yoga, Wednesdays are tai chi—they’re the only center that offers it in the county, he said. Fridays are chair exercise, which is the most popular. In addition to the fitness classes, games are a popular draw, including bingo, dominoes and cards. Art classes are held on Mondays—the center even has two kilns for those looking to dabble in ceramics. A modest computer area sits off to the side of the main community room. The center’s library, composed of a floor-to-ceiling wall of books, runs along one side.
“I have one gentleman who just likes to come in here and read,” Ford tells me as we walk by the space.
The center feels comfortable, welcoming, and I can see why area seniors gravitate here, though, as any of the long-term members will tell you, there have been some rough patches.
“Are you the one who fell through the floor?” Ford calls to an older gentleman sitting nearby as he gives me a rundown of Heinz-Menaker’s history.
The man laughs and shakes his head, but I can’t tell if it’s from disbelief that he lived to tell the tale or simply because it wasn’t him. Either way, center folklore has it that it was this very incident that was the impetus for replacing the former senior center with the building now known as Heinz-Menaker.
U.S. Sen. John Heinz and City Council member and community activist Mim Menaker were instrumental to the creation of the current building some 25 years ago. But over time, the center lacked sufficient funds for routine maintenance and improvements. When Ford first came on board, six years ago, he focused on pinning together funding to address the many infrastructure issues stemming from years of deferred maintenance. It wasn’t easy.
“My members would ask me, ‘Well, what are you doing?” Ford said. “And I’d say, ‘I’m keeping the lights on and doors open.’”
Joanne Schreffler mirrors this. She coordinates the food pantry for the center, schedules trips and activities, among a host of other responsibilities. She tells me that, when Ford arrived, “trashcans sat at various points around the main community room because of the leaking roof. You can’t ask people to come in here and pay good money and then have trash cans sitting around to catch water.” She shakes her head, just thinking about it.
“That was a tough period,” she said. “And there’s just not a lot of places you can go to ask for $60,000 to get the roof fixed.”
Eventually, Ford gathered funds to stabilize the building through a combination of U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Dauphin County gaming grants. Today, the center relies on proceeds from renting out the space for events in order to supplement city, county and state funding. Heinz-Menaker runs on a shoestring staff of fewer than a half-dozen, mostly part-time, employees.
“These are the people who hold it all together,” Ford notes.
As I talk with Schreffler, who has worked at Heinz-Menaker for years, she says the experience of watching her own parents age was the inspiration for her involvement.
“Working with these members five days a week, they become family,” Schreffler says, smiling. “We worry about them when they’re not here, send them birthday cards, get well cards when they go in for surgery.”
The family-like feel is evident as I explore. Members mingle together after the Pokeno game has broken up. Peals of laughter rise above a happy din. I ask Frances McQuay, a petite, stylishly dressed member, what draws her here.
“I get my exercise in, and I like the people,” she says. “It’s the fellowship. I really like coming here. It gets me up in the morning. It gets me out of the house.”
She persuaded her husband to come along too.
“Once we started coming, we both can’t stay away,” she says.
While speaking with another member, Pat Mueller, our conversation strays into the ups and downs of aging.
“Attitude has a lot to do with it,” she tells me, with a twinkle in her eye.
Something that can be said about much of life. At Heinz-Menaker, age is but a number and attitude is everything. Good aphorisms to remember at any age.
Heinz-Menaker Senior Center is located at 1824 N. 4th St., Harrisburg
More information about Dauphin County’s senior centers can be found at dauphincounty.org.