Alexian trains seniors to initiate community betterment projects

December 1, 2012

Mention the Tennessee volunteers, and college sports might spring to mind. In Chattanooga, however, 125 miles southwest of the University of Tennessee's Knoxville campus, the volunteers — with a lowercase "v" — are a team of older adults improving their community in a myriad of ways.

The Chattanooga volunteers are the product of the Senior Leadership Academy, a nine-month course sponsored by Alexian Brothers Senior Neighbors' Retired Senior Volunteer Program. "We ask the members of the leadership class to identify a need in the community that they are able to address," said Jayme Upton, director of the senior volunteer program.

Each class launches one or two projects, which have included bringing arts events to residents of low-income housing facilities, starting an early-reading program for preschoolers and establishing a garden on the roof of an elementary school.

"We help them take a leadership role, hopefully, in their volunteerism," Upton said. "This is one of my favorite parts of my job, doing the leadership program and seeing what comes out of it every year."

The Senior Leadership Academy exemplifies the benefits of partnership, Upton said.

"It's important to Alexian, especially to Senior Neighbors, to partner with many organizations," she said, noting that by working together, coalitions of organizations and agencies were able to beautify Chattanooga's waterfront and land a Volkswagen plant. "Partnership has gotten us, as a community, where we are," she said.

Tuition for the Senior Academy is $600, and most participants receive full or partial scholarships, Upton said. Since the academy's inception in 2003, 75 people have graduated from the program; 15 are enrolled in the current class.

Participants are usually 50 or older; their average age is in the mid-70s. Most are retired. They have a diverse mix of backgrounds and a range of incomes. "Some of the class comes out of the Chattanooga Housing Authority," Upton said. "They fund several of the members: seniors, low income, some low education."

The academy's curriculum includes tours of museums, media outlets, nonprofit agencies and local businesses. "It's a good program for somebody new to the community," Upton said. "The economic development story of our town is very interesting."

As they learn, the participants decide on projects that can make a difference in their community.

Dee Hogancamp, 73, was a member of the 2011-12 class. "The places that we went to were amazing," she said. The group visited the local newspaper, the United Way, the Ronald McDonald House. At the UTC Challenger Center, a space learning center on the campus of the University of Tennessee Chattanooga, they got a preview of the Mars landing by NASA's Curiosity rover, then 10 months in the future. "We sort of pretended like we were (on) a mission, they had us doing some work like we were inside the spacecraft," she said.

Hogancamp's class boasts two accomplishments: They wrote a $15,000 grant to help the United Way fund an education program for veterans, and they organized an ongoing series of educational events in the Housing Authority's senior residences. Topics have included funeral planning, hospice care, medical issues and legal aid.

Hogancamp said an upcoming session would examine the causes and symptoms of heart attacks and strokes. "It's not a really good topic to talk about sometimes, but the seniors need to know," said Hogancamp, who lives in a building for seniors with low incomes.

She gives the academy credit for jump-starting her desire to help in her community. "It was a definite asset for me. I learned a lot. It was good for my brain. It got me working," Hogancamp said.

"Whatever I can do volunteering, I do."

A previous class founded a Senior Arts Council that brought arts activities and performances to various groups, with a focus on serving people in low-income housing. Upton said the seed for the arts project had been planted when the class visited Chattanooga's Hunter Museum of American Art.

"We had kind of what Oprah describes as an aha moment," she said. "Several of the members didn't know they could even come into a place as beautiful as this. It brought tears to their eyes."

Margaret Kelley, chairman of the Alexian Brothers Senior Neighbors Board, attended the academy about 10 years ago. "We went to the 911 center. We went behind the scenes at a lot of places," said Kelley, 75, a lifelong Chattanoogan and a retired vice chancellor of the University of Tennessee. "I learned a lot that I didn't know."

She was so inspired by the class that she started her own project, delivering library books to homebound senior citizens. She's about to start tutoring students, and she's chairman of the scholarship committee at Alexian Village, the retirement community where she lives.

"I think it's good to keep involved and keep busy," she said.


Copyright © 2012 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2012 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.