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Senior Connection Evolves from Fish Fries and Mystery Meet Dinners to ‘More Than Lunch’
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Coni Foster was among the volunteers offering wine at a picnic marking the Senior Connection’s 50th anniversary this past summer.
   
Tuesday, January 11, 2022
 

STORY AND PHOTOS BY KAREN BOSSICK

In 1971 a bus made its way from Carey to Ketchum, picking up a handful of Wood River Valley residents who were over 60 years of age and taking them to lunch at Our Lady of the Snows Catholic Church in Ketchum.

The Older Americans Act passed by Congress in 1965 had promised to fund meals to provide seniors nutrition if 45 percent of the meal was protein, and a few in the Wood River Valley had decided it was high time they took advantage of that.

That bus ride was the start of what is today the Senior Connection, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary with more than 750 members, a $1.3 million budget and a sustaining campaign that’s nearly reached its goal.

 
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Taul Paul Seranur and Frank Rowland show off a copy of a book charting 50 Years of The Senior Connection, which was constructed from clippings and photos volunteers dredged from the bowels of the Connection’s basement.
 

“The Senior Connection…is more than lunch. We are helping people to have a better life,” said longtime board member Kathy Lind. “A lot of people in this valley have nobody, and if it wasn’t for Meals on Wheels, there would be no one to check in on them.”

It was Jani Gray who took it upon herself to go to the courthouse and pick her way through the voter registration cards that were then kept in recipe card boxes. She appointed herself head of the new senior center and invited those whose cards indicated they were over 60 to drop by for coffee and donuts.

The population of Blaine County was 5,749 at the time.

Amazingly, it was a bit of a tough sell then to interest the seniors in two meals a week. But, when the bridge group smelled Joan Davies frying up fish for a woman who received home-delivered meals, they were hooked.

 
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Marie Gallo served as honorary chairperson of the Sustaining Campaign, along with Mardi Shepard and Leslie Silva. Others serving on the campaign included Don Cunningham, Kathy Lynn, Joe Fastow, Mary Beth Flower and Tracy Baer.
 

Articles of incorporation creating the Blaine County Seniors’ Council were signed in October 1974 pronouncing that humans need peers with whom they can interact and who are available as a source of encouragement and support.

As the lunch program grew to 45 people, the new Senior Center moved in 1975 to the Kelly House on Main Street in Hailey, and members began indulging themselves in outings to Jackpot, Nev.,  crazy hat parties and art classes, as well as meals. And, in 1977 as the Senior Center outgrew the Kelly House, it moved to the Old Miners Hall, a mortuary and church built in 1905 at Second and Silver streets.

The senior center started its Meals on Wheels program that year with Moritz Community Hospital in Sun Valley providing the meals. And it expanded its lunch program at the senior center to five days a week, surprising diners with occasional mystery meat meals utilizing poached game provided by Idaho Fish and Game.

Betty Grant hosted beauty clinics, inviting stylists from Sun Valley Salon to cut seniors’ hair. And a ventriloquist headlined occasional vaudeville nights, followed by health and living seminars during which attorney Keith Roark advised how to avoid con artists.

 
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Teresa Beahen Lipman said the Sustaining Campaign is the first campaign of its size for The Senior Connection in more than 10 years.
 

The seniors acquired a big blue school bus and nicknamed it “Old Blue,” hanging a banner on the side that read “Life is Rosy at 60.” And, when they outgrew the Miners Hall in 1980, they signed a lease for the current location on Third Avenue, tasking Tommy Farr and Barbara Dargatz with raising $300,000 to build a center.

The building, designed by Ketchum architect Jim McLaughlin, was completed in 1984—the same year the Sun Valley Summer Symphony staged its first concerts on the Sun Valley lawn.

Ten years later, as the population of Blaine County grew to 13,765, Ketchum contractor John Lloyd oversaw an expansion. The building was remodeled and expanded again in 2013 to include a movie theater, exercise room, library, and activities rooms.

Today, volunteer drivers drive more than 600 miles each week taking Meals on Wheels to as many as 600 seniors from Carey to Ketchum. And the dining room bustles not just with dinners but Bingo and other activities.

 
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Jovita Pina helps to shepherd the Senior Connection alongside Teresa Beahen Lipman.
 

The Connection Club offers those with memory and other cognitive impairments two days of arts and crafts, exercise and other activities every week to give spouses a respite. Rickshaw bikes and classes like Fit and Fall Proof keep seniors active.

And seniors enjoy a robust selection of activities, including outings to the Sun Valley Music Festival, snowshoeing at Craters of the Moon, wildflower walks and even whitewater rafting.

“I didn’t want to come at first, but now I look forward to coming,” said Helen Chenoweth. “I like to go on the hikes and other outings, and I like to help when I can, stuffing envelopes and that sort of thing. Those who don’t go to the Senior Connection don’t know what they’re missing.”

The Senior Connection had to shut down its facility as the pandemic debuted in the Wood River Valley in March 2020. But staff continued to churn out Meals on Wheels and take-and-go lunches to keep seniors from having to frequent supermarkets.

The pandemic had a silver lining as the Senior Connection added 600 new donors, noted Board President Michael Beck.

“And every donor is important to The Senior Connection,” he added.

Cocktails for a Cause, held every October at Gail Severn Gallery with signature old fashioned cocktails, provides 20 percent of the organization’s funding. And in 2021 the Senior Connection launched a $2.5 million “So Much More than Lunch” sustaining campaign to celebrate its 50th anniversary and plan for its future.

Campaigners have raised more than $2.3 million of their goal in just over nine months.

The campaign addresses critical needs in four areas that are not included in the annual operating budget:

  • Two new Meals on Wheels vehicles, a bus and additional parking
  • A vision and hearing center, kitchen expansion and video/iPad connection program
  • Additional staff, healthcare reimbursement and affordable housing assistance
  • Bolstering long-term funds and operating reserves

The organization has already purchased the Meals on Wheels vehicles, which were needed after the program grew 427 percent in the wake of the pandemic.

The Connection is also moving forward with plans to open a new vision and hearing center in Ketchum by the spring of 2022. The center will provide free screenings to all seniors.

The kitchen expansion is scheduled to start in February.

“This campaign was essential to help the organization prepare for the growth we have, and continue to experience” said the Connection’s executive director Teresa Beahen Lipman.

Among those who stepped up to the support the Senior Connection is Hanna Bigelow, who only recently moved to the Wood River Valley full time.

“I think it’s good to pick one thing where you can make a difference,” she said. “The people that work and volunteer for this organization genuinely care very deeply about the seniors. So, I feel very good about supporting it.”

DID YOU KNOW?

Seniors made up 20.3 percent of Blaine County’s 24,272 population in April 2020. And 636 seniors moved to Blaine County during the year following the pandemic’s debut, according to driver’s license data.

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