Welcome to the modern St. Albert Seniors Association. At 50, it’s now technically a senior but it’s as active as a tween and more popular than the skateboard park.
Still, for the city’s 26,000 or so seniors, it’s a place that remains largely unknown despite being tucked away at the top of the keyhole of Taché Street and surrounded by some of the city’s most notable destinations including Lions Park, the curling club, and the Royal Canadian Legion.
“The question is: I wonder how many people know that we are in existence here? That's one of the questions we always wrestle with,” said Winston Lane, president of the board of directors, asserting that it’s one the best kept secrets in St. Albert.
“Sometimes you're out and about, and you talk about the association: ‘Never heard of it.’ How do we get that message out that we exist and this is what we do, the fun we're having here?”
This golden anniversary year is as good a reason as any to celebrate its past accomplishments and look ahead to future expansions, while also taking stock of the plethora of programs and services currently on offer for its 1,400 members who are already in on the action.
With all of that to consider, the club is actually spending a full year celebrating, starting this month with a kickoff gala with a Golden Age of Hollywood theme on Wednesday, Aug. 28.
“We're going to start off a year-long celebration, so a little bit of something every month,” said executive director Jonna Grad, who mentioned other special events are lined up including a member appreciation event, a senior talent night, and historical displays as well, with another huge gala in August 2020.
“I can't even think. There are so many activities that are being planned that people are very excited about.”
There are already so many activities going on in that inauspicious building at the top of Taché that Grad said it’s actually a little tough to plan more events.
“That is certainly a challenge actually and the committee that has been planning this is so enthusiastic, that I think they'd be doing something every day. We've had to rein them in just a little bit because there is so much going on.”
What’s on the table
The centre already hosts more than 100 classes every season with daily activities such as curling and bridge, yoga, arts and crafts, dance, zumba, language lessons… the list – practically anything and everything “for your mind, body and spirit” according to its fall program guide – just goes on and on. The facility also offers meal programs, transportation programs, outreach services, and more, including a frequently very busy café.
Head chef Lucia Camara loves to serve because she loves feeding her guests’ bellies and their souls, too.
“It's really nice here. The people in here are very friendly,” she said. “We like to work in here because we like to joke around them. We are working with a little bit older people and sometimes they're lonely and it's nice for us to be talking with them. Sometimes they need to talk with someone.”
“This is like home. I love to work with people. To me, this is like my big family. We love this place. The people in St. Albert are very nice,” said chef aide Vic Augusto.
He added that they sometimes serve more than 60 at lunch, especially when their famous $10 real cod fish and chips are on the menu. Those are the days when you have to show up early just to make sure that you get a table.
“When we have fish and chips as the special, we have people booking tables from Sherwood Park, Calahoo… everywhere,” he said. “It’s top of the line.”
Grad explained that a welcoming café is one of the first and most important features of the St. Albert Seniors Association.
“We have more and more new people walking through the door who are newly arrived in St. Albert and wanting to find out what's going on here.”
Take a tour around
Past members will undoubtedly remember the bottleneck entrance of the old facility. Visiting the club was an unforgettable accomplishment. When the city spent nearly $3.5 million to remodel it before it reopened in 2016, offering a grand, welcoming entrance was one of the keys.
Now when you walk into Red Willow Place (as the building is now called), there’s a grand entrance filled with art, including a rotating display of the outstanding photos taken by members of the St. Albert Photography Club. Art and enough room for you and a dozen of your friends to stand and admire it… now that’s an entrance.
Often the very first sounds that you hear are people in conversation, but occasionally, you’ll be treated to the soundtrack coming from the woodshop: power tool music, in other words. It’s a functional and fully equipped shop for members and volunteers to work on personal projects and create all kinds of things, many of which are sold as fundraisers for the organization and for customer commissions.
Some of them, such as the birdhouses and puzzle boards, also end up at Willows Gift Shop, the club’s onsite boutique.
Gift shop co-ordinator Ena Gerritse used to own and manage the Dejonge Gallery in Spruce Grove. She knows all about objects of beauty and there is certainly no shortage of treasures to be discovered at Willows.
“Everything here is on consignment and the consignment work has to be made by hand,” she explained, looking over the array of articles of knitting, hats, clothing, jewelry, household goods, gorgeous turned bowls, and more, even handmade purses. “They are fabulous.”
Gerritse joined the club a few years ago for the hospitality, goodwill and the variety of programs.
“It is a very, very happy place. That's one of the reasons I like it here. There’s always something going on.”
The gift shop is located next to a lovely little lounge area that also offers a lookout to the backyard patio where sunny summer days often lead to barbecued rib dinners. That lounge area is another busy corner of Red Willow Place on Thursdays. That’s when Dave Thomas sets up his knife and scissor sharpening station. Perhaps you’ve seen his ads in the Classifieds section of the Gazette. The retired psychologist has the right tools to do the job and donates all the proceeds right back to the club.
That means that he must like the place a fair bit, right?
“I do like it a lot, and my wife Carin does a lot of the sewing for the gift shop,” he began. “This is our club. We make it ours.”
His prices start at $2 for small knives and scissors.
Take a long look around
There is far more going on at the St. Albert Seniors Association than can easily be reported in a feature story, even in point form. Its program guide (that can be found by asking for it at Red Willow Place or on its website at stalbertseniors.ca) can do a much better job of that.
People can meet there for cards or floor curling, perform with the Groovy Gang or Geri-Actors, and take advantage of the Seniors Association bus or the transportation program to get to and from appointments. This is really just scratching the surface. The club offers other personal services from lawyers and accountants and tax specialists so people can ask questions and get answers to real life problems, too. While they’re there, they can also have their hair styled.
Board member Pat Phelan has been a member for the last few years and hasn’t looked back since.
“When I retired, my wheels were spinning. I started coming to exercise classes and meeting people. I just love it honestly,” she said.
“It's just a real sense of community … that’s a big piece of why people like it. We hear stories like Pat’s all the time,” Grad continued, trying to describe the Seniors Association as part-business, part-charitable organization, part-social group, part-sports facility, part-community gathering place, and more.
“We're certainly trying to get the word out there that there's something here for everybody. It's bustling. There is a lot more complexity than just what you would think of a seniors' organization; there's a lot going on here. We certainly have all the things that are happening for members and activities and social events, and services for people that need help with housing or transportation and all that, but we're also using this wonderful facility that we have and we're running a thriving rental and catering business that help to support all the activities that are also going on, so that we're not as heavily reliant on government funding.”
In other words, she says that it provides a very vital service to a lot of people, and hopes to reach even more.
“Absolutely, it certainly does. I think it really meets needs on so many levels that everybody can find something here.”