Edna Elam invited a friend to the Mt. Juliet Senior Activity Center, but the friend never showed up. She couldn't find it. As many times as she drove back and forth on Mt. Juliet Road, passing the center each time, her friend said she never saw it.
That's a big reason, according to Elam, why so many seniors in Wilson County are excited about the prospect of a new, much larger and free-standing senior center facility to be located on 20 acres of land donated by the Crawford family.
"Right now we are definitely hidden from public view," Elam said. "I never knew the marquee outside was for the center until I started coming - I always thought it was for the church." The current center, located at 2034 North Mt. Juliet Road, is tucked behind a church owned by the adjacent Mt. Juliet Church of Christ. "I think if we were more visible to the public, more people would know about us. You can't even see our name from the road."
The current senior center is 30 years old. The two-story building, deeded to the center from the city in 1984, has served many uses, including a jail. Approximately 15 years later, a 10,000-square-foot annex was added. Today, 60 to 80 programs vie for space.
"We manage, but we're cramped," Elam noted.
Elam, originally from Mason, retired twice. She worked for Social Security Disability for 33 years and left there in 2003. She went to work for the Social Security Administration and retired in 2012 due to painful arthritis. She and her husband Willie, who retired from the State of Tennessee in 2000, were looking for a place to exercise. She picked up a senior center newsletter in the local library and decided to check it out.
"I took a tour, and I liked it. One of my first questions to the executive director," Elam, who is African American, said, "was what about people of color - how many are involved in the center? That was a concern of mine. Today I'm seeing more people of color come in throughout the week, but I would still like to see more diversity." Elam added that she has always felt welcome at the center.
"My husband and I came back the next day after that first visit and joined. That was in April of 2015, and we've been coming ever since. I really like the exercise classes. The instructor is very good, and having a real person lead the class is a lot better than following a video."
Elam is an active volunteer at the center. She records the daily sign-up sheets on the computer, and she serves on the membership and programming committee as a liaison between center members and the board. "I take concerns and sometimes complaints to the board," she said. "I listen a lot."
With a bachelor's degree in sociology and a master's degree in psychology, both from Tennessee State University, Elam said she loves to observe people.
"I have noticed that a lot of people come here for an outlet," she said. "It appears that there is a lot of loneliness, and they come here to socialize with others. That's what the center should be all about. Some people come here for the daily hot meal, to read, play cards or just to relax. There's also free bread and pastry - I think people like that. Pastries and coffee are always available."
Elam said she knows people are excited about having a new center, especially those who like to exercise and those who work in the kitchen. In the current facility, a large common area is shared by nearly everyone, and often the close quarters and the noise from one area interferes with another activity. A larger and newer facility will draw more attention, and people will come to see what's going on, she said.
"I'm looking forward to the indoor walking trail and an exercise room with enough equipment so that people won't have to wait to use it," she said. "The indoor walking track will be much better because there are some seniors who probably shouldn't be using the treadmill. An indoor track would be on level ground and be much safer from a security standpoint. Plus you wouldn't have to worry about the weather.
"Raising public awareness about the center is so important," she continued. "People in the community need to know how much this center benefits the entire community. This allows seniors to have a safe place to go where they can feel comfortable. For those who don't drive anymore but can still take care of themselves, their children can bring them to the center and not worry about where they are or if they're just sitting at home watching TV all day."
Then the advocate and ambassador for the Mt. Juliet Senior Activity Center punctuated her message with a tone of absolute certainty. "Having active seniors helps everyone. Senior citizens still have a lot to offer to the community."