The Day – Thrive55+ Active Living Center in Groton Expands Volunteer Program

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Groton — At the Thrive55+ Active Living Center, seniors volunteer at the Cove Coffee Bar, a new stand that sells coffee, tea, hot chocolate and pastries to people entering the center.

Volunteers also maintained garden beds outside the center, helped with meals and helped with special events. They also serve as “ambassadors” to welcome people and answer their questions.

“Volunteers are really what make our center work and they really provide such diversity in our programming,” said program supervisor and volunteer coordinator Tomi Stanley.

Thrive55+, formerly called Groton Senior Center, has expanded and revamped its volunteer program so that seniors now lead volunteer groups. This allows them to play a bigger role in making decisions about what programming they want to see at the center and in getting projects done, Stanley said.

“It gives you ownership, so you really feel like it’s your center,” volunteer Barbara Daniels said.

Center supervisor Mary Jo Riley said under the leadership of Stanley, who joined the center three years ago, the center now has more than 110 volunteers helping with the projects. Many volunteers are patrons of the center, but youth in the community also help with special events and programs, Stanley said.

Stanley implemented the plan that allows volunteers to create and lead teams that work in the gardens, serve as baristas, help select entertainment for events, help organize events, run the technology center, instruct certain programs and serve as ambassadors, Riley said.

Volunteers bring a variety of experiences and skills, from gardening to marketing to the medical field.

“We’re retired, but we also have many years of valuable experience and skills,” said volunteer Elizabeth Hogan, “and now they’re in use again and it feels really good.”

Stanley said it was like a “breath of fresh air” to see how excited the seniors were.

The Eastern Connecticut Community Garden Association built flower beds outside the center in the spring of 2020 and provided plants to grow vegetables, Stanley said.

The volunteers said they were tasked with various tasks, including planting, turning the soil and weeding the garden beds. They grew tomatoes, squash, eggplant, peppers and herbs. Stanley said the vegetables were used in the centre’s kitchen for meals and any extras were given to people to take home.

Stanley said that because volunteers have made the gardening program successful, the association is donating two additional flower beds this year.

As an extension of the gardening program, the association has also approached the center to offer a community supported agriculture program at the center this summer to provide vegetables to 40 people for 12 weeks, Stanley said. The vegetables will be donated by an anonymous donor. Cooking demonstrations will be offered through a partnership with Ella T. Grasso Technical High School, Stanley said.

During times when there were restrictions related to COVID-19, volunteers continued to help by helping with the centre’s take-out meals, as well as the Community First Dinner program for the wider community.

“It was great because we could keep people, who would be in isolation, coming and being able to have their meal, which they were used to,” said volunteer Fran Birt. The volunteers knew people were coming and the program was very well received, she said.

“Some people came every day,” added her husband, Terry Birt. With the senior center closed for several months, the takeout program was the only interface the public had with the center, he said.

“There were lots of laughs, even though it was a tough time,” Hogan said.

Volunteer Sharon Chernesky said she is inspired to volunteer because she enjoys coming to the center, meeting people and seeing people having fun coming in, having fun and laughing.

Additionally, people are also helping out with the 55 Club, a service-oriented organization that helps put money into the community and the center, said treasurer Terry Birt, who previously served as the club’s president. The group organizes fundraisers and donates proceeds to local scholarships and community service projects as well as the senior center.

Volunteer Michele Bernhardt said she used the library a lot and it was suggested she try going to the senior center. When she learned about the activities and programs offered at the centre, she thought they sounded interesting and that she could spend a day or half a day there — and it turned into half a week. She said the people at the center treated her like she was “part of a family”.

Volunteers help organize special events at the center, including the “Souper Bowl” soup-tasting event.

“It’s nice to see how appreciated you are when you volunteer because people actually say, ‘Thank you. I’m so glad you’re doing this. It’s awesome. We’re having a great time,” Daniels said.

The center has launched a Volunteer of the Month program and is planning a volunteer appreciation event for April, which is National Volunteer Month.

“These people are doing what the staff don’t have time to do,” Riley said. “To me, they are an inspiration. They have a lifetime of experience to share and give, and Thrive55+ is grateful to benefit from it.”

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