DERBY — Gloria Jaeckel found plenty of kindred souls when she joined the Community Quilters group at the Derby Senior Center.
“Some of my best friends are people I met two years ago,” Jaeckel said.
Those friends don’t think it’s unusual that Jaeckel drives south from her home in Wichita to the Derby center each Thursday afternoon. The Derby center has become known for attracting members from outside Derby city limits. As some area senior centers struggle with funding, staffing, membership and other issues, the Derby center is seen as somewhat of a model for what senior centers can be.
“Derby is very special and unique,” Sedgwick County Commissioner Jim Howell, whose district includes Derby, said during a recent commission meeting.
Among other things, the Derby center is one of only two in Kansas accredited by the National Institute of Senior Centers. The other is Heritage Center of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City in Overland Park.
The Derby Senior Center is one of 15 senior centers currently financially assisted by Sedgwick County. Its 3,300-plus membership dwarfs numbers for other centers.
In April, there were 2,360 “sign-ins” by members at the Derby Senior Center, according to Deputy City Manager Dan Bronson. But the number of members who visited was smaller —330 — because many signed in multiple times. Seventy of those members came from outside Derby.
There’s no membership charge, although fees are charged for some activities.
The center’s offerings include a dance each month. There’s also the option, depending on the day, of discussing a book, watching a movie, listening to a guest speaker, learning guitar, spending time in the computer lab or taking a short group trip. Some members gather to play pitch, pool or horseshoes. Noon meals are served. Many members who sign up to eat participate in another program while there, said Derby Activity Coordinator Amy Bruso.
Attendance numbers for individual events aren’t overwhelming, but they add up. On April 6, six people took part in a class called Exercise with Purpose, three were in another called Cardio, Core & More and six signed in for Zumba Gold. The same day, 11 attended a fall-prevention program called ExerciseFitness, which the center was the first in Kansas to test. On April 26, 16 members showed up for Bunco Babes while 35 played Card Bingo.
The Derby Senior Center had modest roots, as people met first in homes, then in a church. It now anchors the south end of a city-owned building at 611 N. Mulberry Road. City Hall is on the north end, and in the middle is The Welcome Center entrance. Another occupant is the Derby Chamber of Commerce.
“They furnish a facility for us, and that’s worth a lot,” said Jim Burgess, a member of the Derby Senior Services Advisory Board and the Sedgwick County Advisory Council on Aging and Physical Disabilities.
The location in a city building is “a huge advantage,” said Deputy City Manager Bronson, because it saves the senior center from a lease payment or property costs that other centers in the region face.
The city’s Derby Dash, a small bus, operates from the same part of the building as the senior center, so seniors in need of transportation have easy access to the Derby Dash for coming and going to the senior center, Bronson noted.
Derby’s current city budget allocates $188,000 for senior services. Sedgwick County kicks in another $115,000. Program fees and fundraisers also generate revenue.
The Derby Senior Center employs a full-time director, an activity coordinator, an administrative assistant and a part-time administrative clerk, giving it the largest staff of any in the county.
Most smaller centers in the county have a part-time director. The four centers in Wichita operated by Senior Services, Inc., each employ one person full time.
Derby qualifies for the biggest chunk of county funding because of a formula adopted by the county commission nearly 20 years ago. The commission agreed to allocate money to centers based on the number of people served, volume of programs offered and other factors.
But the funding of senior centers has proven to be a continuing source of controversy, and it’s unclear whether the county would ever support another senior center the way it does the one here. For years, the commission refused to follow its own funding formula for senior centers, freezing payments at current levels despite the fact that some centers qualified for higher amounts.
The source of that funding is a property tax mill levy that county voters overwhelmingly approved for senior-related services in 1982. But the county now collects less than half the amount authorized by voters, forgoing millions of dollars for those services despite a growing senior population.
County commissioners are divided over the importance of the centers, partly because some of their districts contain more or bigger ones than others. During an April meeting, David Dennis, the commission chairman who represents District 3, pointed out that the county Department on Aging ranked senior centers as the lowest priority on a list of 15 senior-related services that receive proceeds of the mill levy.
Howell, who represents District 5, responded that senior centers, in addition to providing recreation and cultural opportunities, connect them with services such as wellness checks, home safety devices and transportation. If the county polled seniors, he said, “I think senior centers would be pretty high on the list.”
Lacey Cruse, the commissioner for District 4, then suggested the county do exactly that in an attempt to “reimagine these facilities and programming, see how they’re being utilized and how they can be improved.”
“I think the first step would be to talk to the actual folks who are utilizing these programs and see what their thoughts are,” she said.
If they ask around the Derby Senior Center, those thoughts are likely to be positive.
Derby resident Sandy Buchanan, taking a break from a line dance class at the center one afternoon, said she’s been a regular there about five years.
“It’s just really good exercise, and I wouldn’t miss it for anything.”
Contact Mary Clarkin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sedgwick County funding of senior centers
Bel Aire — $18,000
Bentley — $5,000
Cheney — $5,000
Clearwater — $18,000
Derby — $115,000
Downtown (Wichita) — $80,000
Haysville — $37,500
Linwood (Wichita) — $57,000
Mulvane — $35,000
Northeast (Wichita) — $57,000
Oaklawn/Sunview — $35,000
Orchard Park (Wichita) — $57,000
Park City — $35,000
Sedgwick — $5,000
Valley Center — $18,000
Note: Sedgwick County is also considering funding for the Hope and La Familia senior centers.
National senior center facts and figures
According to statistics compiled by the National Council on Aging:
• Approximately 70 percent of senior center participants are women; half of them live alone.
• The majority are Caucasian, followed by African Americans, Hispanics and Asians.
• Compared with their peers, senior center participants have higher levels of health, social interaction, and life satisfaction and lower levels of income.
• The average age of participants is 75.
• 75 percent of participants visit their center 1 to 3 times per week. They spend an average of 3.3 hours per visit.
• Senior centers serve as a gateway to the nation’s aging network, connecting older adults to vital community services that can help them stay healthy and independent.
• More than 60 percent of senior centers are designated focal points for delivery of Older American Act services such as nutrition and exercise programs, transportation and volunteer opportunities.