Older Americans Center no longer a secret

Photos by Traci Westcott/The Herald
Dubois County residents stretch before a Seniors STEP — Seniors Striving Toward Empowerment and Purpose — walk led by Kaci Wehr of Jasper along the Jasper Riverwalk Wednesday morning.


JASPER — Unintentionally, the Older Americans Center has become one of Dubois County’s best-kept secrets. The facility’s director, Carrie Dick, doesn’t know how it gained that reputation.

But this year, it’s quickly changing.

Attendance numbers show that roughly 17,000 guests have visited or taken part in events hosted by the center through mid-August. For the past five years, the center has pulled in about 25,000 people annually, meaning 2019 could be a breakout year for the center.

Dubois County residents who are at least 55 years old regularly pack the center — located in the Arnold F. Habig Community Center on St. Charles Street in Jasper — to play cards, dominos, Scrabble and bingo. They also exercise in classes or on workout machines, and many come just to hang out. Most of the center’s offerings are free.

The fitness classes have become so much of a draw this year that they were featured as a success story on the National Recreation and Park Association’s website earlier this month.

Dick attributed the success of those classes — and the participation boom that has occurred in 2019 — to Kaci Wehr, a certified exercise physiologist and yoga instructor, who began working as the site’s community engagement coordinator in March 2018.

Becky Wehr, Dave Wahl and Diann Zehr, all of Jasper, walk together during a Seniors STEP — Seniors Striving Toward Empowerment and Purpose — walk along the Jasper Riverwalk Wednesday morning.

“It’s been fantastic,” Wehr said of her time at the center. “I always knew I wanted to be working with this age group, and it’s just been awesome just to have the ability to be able to grow and build.”

Wehr leads a wide variety of classes each week. They range from gentle workouts that focus on stretching, support strength and balance, to more challenging routines that include cardio and resistance exercises. Guided yoga sessions are also offered.

Not all of the courses are held inside the St. Charles building’s walls. Seniors STEP — an acronym meaning Seniors Striving Toward Empowerment and Purpose — is an eight-week program that gives participants an opportunity to be part of a self-paced walking group that meets at city parks. A wellness information discussion follows the strolls, and sometimes, local doctors or health professionals join in to share their expertise.

A water aerobics class was also hosted off-site at the Jasper Municipal Swimming Pool this summer. Attendance at those classes in July tripled from last year.

On Monday, a record 47 people attended just one of the center’s many fitness classes. In years past, Dick said attendance at the center’s two basic exercise classes would top out in the upper 20s.

“Me stepping into this, it’s like, I love that I can see that they have the opportunity to be able to work on their social well-being, their emotional well-being,” Wehr said. “Just being able to be around other people. We have so many that come in who have lost loved ones ... and they can come in and build friendships and attach to those who have also been in the same situation.”

The Older Americans Center also finds success outside of the fitness offerings. Bingo day once brought in about 90 players — so many, that the center asks guests to carpool to the weekly event.

One resident who regularly visits the facility has spoken about moving away, but she is torn because the center and the people she has met there are such an integral part of her life. She doesn’t want to leave them behind.

Many who visit for the first time are surprised at how big the space is, and how much there is to do inside.

“It’s funny, people say we’re the best-kept secret,” Dick said. She doesn’t know why that’s the case, and she doesn’t want it to be — the center’s activities are regularly published in this newspaper, and employees attend local health fairs to bring in more guests.

“We try to put it out there ... word of mouth is probably the best thing we have as far as spreading the word,” Dick said.

Even so, it now looks like the secret could be getting out.

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