2013-11-20 / Family

Standing room only

As population ages, facility faces space crunch
By Jim McConnell

Members of Chesterfield’s Lifelong Learning Institute learned ballroom dancing during a class last week at the Watkins Annex. 
Jim McConnell/Chesterfield Observer Members of Chesterfield’s Lifelong Learning Institute learned ballroom dancing during a class last week at the Watkins Annex. Jim McConnell/Chesterfield Observer When the Lifelong Learning Institute welcomed its 400th member a few years ago, the local organization already was pushing the limits of its available space at the Watkins Annex building in Midlothian.

Its membership has nearly doubled since – a trend that’s likely to continue as Chesterfield’s senior population grows.

At some point, the institute is going to simply run out of room and it will be physically unable to handle any new members. For now, the institute’s leaders are doing their best to accommodate its growing membership.

“That’s the biggest chore we have – we don’t want to turn anyone away,” said Jerry Schneider, a member of the board of directors.

Chesterfield LLI offers a variety of classes (taught by an all-volunteer faculty) for its 795 members, who range in age from 50 to the mid-90s.

On a recent weekday afternoon, one group of seniors was learning the tango in a ballroom dancing class. Another group was playing a canasta-style card game known as hand and foot. A cooking class had just ended. Several members lingered in another classroom to chat.

The institute has use of six classrooms and one lecture room at the Watkins Annex, a former school building near Sycamore Square that’s owned by Chesterfield County Public Schools.

The school division maintains the building and uses it for its night school program. Chesterfield LLI uses the building between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, when it otherwise would be vacant.

The building’s lecture room can seat up to 70 people. That can be a problem when the institute has a particularly popular speaker; 120 members already have signed up to hear playwright Helene Wagner’s lecture on the making of “Lincoln” on Dec. 4, which will be held at the nearby Winfree Memorial Baptist Church.

Utilizing available space at local churches is just one way Chesterfield LLI executive director Monica Hughes and her two parttime employees have addressed the Watkins Annex’s capacity issues.

“It’s a good problem to have,” Hughes said. “We knew there was a need here with a growing older adult population. You always hope to grow to the point where you run out of space.

“But one of the great things about this place is that so many people feel like it’s home. They’re familiar with the space and with each other. If we can’t keep everything on site, we try to keep it close by.”

Anne Coggins, a member of the Chesterfield LLI since 2008, called it “my lifeline” and “such a wonderful place.”

“I think it keeps us in touch with what’s going on and makes us feel like we can still contribute,” she added. “We’re not sitting at home feeling sorry for ourselves.”

At this point, lack of money is the only thing preventing the institute from finding a larger space to serve its expanded membership.

When the institute was founded 10 years ago, it had 60 members and the county contributed $33,000 annually toward its operation.

The recession prompted countywide budget cuts in 2009 and the institute’s public funding was cut to $22,600. One year later, it was cut again to its current level of $10,000.

That represents less than 2 percent of Chesterfield LLI’s annual budget.

“Do we need [the county funding]? Absolutely. Do we appreciate it? Yes,” Hughes said. “We know the county is doing the best they can with what they have. We don’t want to create a hardship for anyone, so we try to be as self-sustaining as possible.”

Approximately 55 percent of the budget comes from membership dues, which are $150 annually. The rest comes from donations, grants and “anywhere else we can find it,” Hughes said with a laugh.

Debbie Leidheiser, Chesterfield’s senior advocate, knows well the challenges facing Hughes and her staff. Leidheiser was the founding executive director of Chesterfield LLI before moving into her current position.

Leidheiser noted that all senior-oriented programs and organizations in the county “are going through a growth period and that will continue.”

“They’re all in the same boat – they’re overcrowded and their programs have waiting lists,” she said. “They need to expand, but how do you pay for it?”

The county government “can’t and really shouldn’t be doing that,” Leidheiser added. “People need to be proactive and get community partners involved.”

As part of that effort, Hughes and her staff recently distributed a survey to their members, seeking input on possible solutions for the space crunch and other issues.

Hughes plans to gather feedback from the survey and summarize it for the board of directors as it formulates a plan for addressing future growth.

“We need everybody’s ideas,” she said. “This has to be a group effort to make it work.”

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