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Originally published December 29, 2012 at 8:05 PM | Page modified January 2, 2013 at 7:46 AM

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Family vitality found at diverse Southeast Seattle Senior Center

Around Seattle and King County, Senior Services helps thousands of older adults stay healthy and find community through activities and classes at seven senior centers, as well as other services.

Seattle Times health reporter

About Senior Services

Senior Services addresses the needs of older adults, whether related to health, economics, general well-being, transportation, minor home repair, nutrition, activities or exercise. The goal is to foster independence and promote positive aging through programs and services in Seattle and King County. To reach the agency: seniorservices.org or 206-448-5757.

How your gift might help Senior Services

$20: Provides transportation to four vital medical appointments; six lunches at the Southeast Seattle Senior Center for a person 60 or over; or 20 Conversational Spanish sessions for seniors at the West Seattle Senior Center.

$50: Provides five hours of plumbing and electrical repairs that will enable a senior to remain independent in his or her home; 10 Tai Chi classes for elders at the Southeast Seattle Senior Center; or 10 arts and crafts classes at the Northshore Senior Center.

$100: Provides a senior with three weeks of nutritious, home-delivered Meals on Wheels; four months (16 sessions) of fitness classes for one senior; or three annual memberships for seniors at the Ballard Northwest Senior Center.

About the series

Each year, The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy raises money for a select group of charities that help children, families and senior citizens. Articles in The Times this year tell about the difference these organizations make in the lives of thousands, and the impact donors to the fund can make.

How you can give

You can give to the Fund For The Needy by donating online at seattletimes.com/ffn

There are secrets lurking behind everything going on at the Southeast Seattle Senior Center, an outwardly modest building just off Rainier Avenue.

For example: Lunch isn't just lunch. Exercise class isn't just about exercise. Even the chatting, going on at full tilt at several tables during a recent visit, isn't what it seems on the surface.

Oddly enough, the several dozen seniors who gathered for exercise classes, lunch or other activities at the center recently seemed happy to spill the beans. Clearly, most of them — and even the staff — are in on the secrets.

For example, there's Thelma Hebert, 80, who volunteers there. Some 40 years ago, she moved from Louisiana to Seattle, where her brother lived.

Now, "my friends are all gone," she says. "My niece and nephew, they're young and working and busy."

She helps clear and wash the tables where lunch is served. She used to wash dishes, too, she said, but her 6-foot-frame was unhappy bending over that far.

With no arm-twisting whatsoever, Hebert happily divulged the reason she's been coming to the center for the past 12 years.

"It's like family," she said.

In fact, the Southeast Seattle Senior Center, one of seven senior centers supported by Senior Services, a nonprofit that provides services to the elderly in King County, has become a second home of sorts for many who come for a meal, a class, a game of bingo, or to volunteer.

According to the Census Bureau, there are more seniors than ever before, and they make up an increasingly large share of the population. Their fixed incomes don't go as far as they did, and for many, help from relatives has vanished as the recession slashed jobs and income.

Senior Services is one of 12 charities that benefit from The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy. Last year, contributions to that fund helped the agency as it provided nearly 60,000 local elders with food, transportation, information and legal-rights assistance, physical training, home repairs and educational classes. Nearly 13,000 seniors participated in the centers' fitness classes.

At the Southeast center, classes include low-cost exercise, yoga and self-defense ("cane fu") classes, meals, free blood-pressure checks and lectures — all more than welcome in this neighborhood, its 98118 ZIP code touted as one of most diverse in the U.S.

If it weren't for the center, says Arlen Walker, 82, who comes to the midmorning "Enhance Fitness" classes, he'd "watch TV and sleep."

Many, like Hebert, call it "our center."

"They set the culture and the tone," says Kate Harkins, community-engagement coordinator. "They have the authority for saying, 'This is our place.' "

They decorate, clean up, move the chairs, and volunteer at The Cheap Chickadee, the center's thrift store next door; at this center, Harkins notes, volunteers outnumber staff.

Seniors take charge with vigor that impresses Harkins mightily. "They care that the floor is clean, the customers greeted, the display is good. Older people have a different work ethic."

Harkins marvels at the little signs that the culture is working. A "jewelry-making class" ended, but the participants liked getting together so much, they became a club. The "Jewelry Making Club" now meets monthly, sharing designs and materials.

Working it out

As Harkins speaks, the loud thumpy-bumpy, feel-good music fills the big room.

It's one of many exercise classes, from stretching and chair exercise to the more vigorous "Enhance Fitness" classes held at the center five days a week.

The latter are tough-love sessions led by Mark Bryant and accompanied by his constant encouragement and enthusiasm. "Work it out! Work it out, class! Show us YOU CAN DO IT!" Bryant shouts, his eyes scanning the crowd.

Bryant, a former champion weightlifter, is keenly attuned to each person's aches and pains. He knows that Pat Helland, 87, who has had some bones in her back spliced together, will use her walker for balance, and must sit for some of the exercises.

He knows that Dorene Cropley, 68, who fell off a cement retaining wall and severely injured herself, is still recovering. "He knows what everybody's problems are," Cropley says.

But they're both into it, swinging arms and legs as best they can and stepping to the beat. Some, like Estelle Altabet, 84, heft hand weights.

"I love this class," says Altabet, who has been coming three days a week for the past decade. The best thing? "The friendship," she says quickly. "I come for exercise, the lunch, and then, the ... " she grins mischievously and rubs her fingers together in the age-old symbol for money — in this case, a post-lunch bingo game, where Altabet has scored a regular front-row seat.

Bryant, who has been through a lot himself, including a hip replacement in 2008, knows that recovering from injuries and staying strong take determination. "My model is: I'm not going to baby you," he says. "I don't want you to think, 'I can't.' "

Many seniors are quick to list reasons they can't do something, he says. But these classes, like lunch, are about more than what meets the eye: In his view, they're about empowering people to learn they can push past disabilities and pains and troubles.

It's also about these seniors' ability to stay independent, to be able to do the things they enjoy, and sometimes just to be able to get out of bed by themselves.

"Sometimes people say, 'You're so hard on us!' " Bryant says. "But you have to do it if you want to get somewhere. I have to keep pushing — 'You can, you can!' "

When he works hard to help these seniors stay strong and active, Bryant thinks about his mother, who just turned 80 in Georgia. "I hope somewhere, someone is doing the same thing for her," he says.

So day after day, he returns. And so do they. "So I can keep on walking," says Annabelle DeCuir, who turned 95 on Christmas Day.

While Bryant leads the class, Beulah Early, 81, a nurse, takes blood-pressure readings at a table off to the side. "Saving our lives," interjects Joanne Mehus, 75.

Early's friend, Kay Endo, 87, is eager to share another secret. "I say, enjoy your life! Go to a movie. Go to a casino — who cares? ... You have to be active — you can't just sit home and look at the walls."

She knows, she says, because she used to do that.

Then she started walking. And walking. One day, years ago, she walked past the senior center, saw the sign, came in, "and that was it," she says.

Pretty soon, she was helping paint the mural on the front of the building. Then she began decorating, and now she has plenty to do.

So there it is.

Lunch isn't just lunch. Exercise isn't just exercise, and bingo isn't only a game. In this place — this perfectly unremarkable building just off Rainier Avenue — these survivors are busy employing the secrets of life: activity and community.

Carol M. Ostrom: 206-464-2249 or costrom@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @costrom.

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