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SWOT kitchen manager Ceci Clover (left) and kitchen volunteer Tina Adair prepare meals for home delivery.

Even though the physical doors are closed at Seniors West of the Tetons in the Driggs Community Center, the nonprofit’s staff, board, and volunteers are still constantly working to provide the valley’s senior citizens with the meals, care, and most of all connections that every person needs to thrive.

That service is reflected in this year’s National Senior Center Month theme, “Delivering Vital Connections.”

“The thing I love most about our senior center is our mission to support social connection,” said executive director River Osborn. “When we host big holiday lunches, bridge club, evening choir, it transforms the space into both a senior center and a community center at once. It’s crucial that seniors have a place to call their own. Seniors are so vulnerable to isolation and loneliness so we do everything in our power to counteract that.”

Volunteer Anna Kirkpatrick, who has gained renown by cooking and selling breakfast burritos during the weekly farmers market, also values providing that connection.

“That’s what I love most about volunteering with our seniors, just being with them, sharing experiences and keeping that social connection going,” she said. “It’s harder now, but we still stay connected through phone calls and socially distanced activities. It’s not perfect, but it is sustaining us until we can safely gather again.”

The first three months of COVID were very difficult for the senior center.

“We were scared and worried about our constituents,” Osborn said. “But we feel like we’ve hit our stride. We’ve had tremendous outpouring of support from the community and had volunteers come out of the woodwork.” SWOT received assistance through small business payroll loans and from the Community Foundation of Teton Valley’s Emergency Response Fund.

Osborn said that this summer when the state was upgraded to Stage 4 in the recovery plan, SWOT tentatively considered reopening its doors, but decided it was too risky.

“We kept blowing past opening dates without a clear plan, so right now we’re closed indefinitely. I’ve been talking to regional senior centers, and I’m going with the flow of the group. We definitely don’t want to be the first to open.”

SWOT has had to get creative with some of its trademark events, such as the Harvest Fest and Pie Auction, which will be held online from Oct. 15-29. SWOT is offering gentle yoga via Zoom, and Tai Chi in the park has been a big draw, but Osborn said she’s concerned about the added isolation that can come with winter. That’s why she’s planning safe outings like snowshoeing for seniors, and maintaining a 60-person phone tree in which board members and staff check in on seniors.

Residents aged 60 and older can sign up to receive five meals per week through Meals on Wheels. The program has grown exponentially since SWOT had to stop offering meals at the center. Volunteers deliver meals on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays. SWOT board chair Carol Lichti keeps track of the numbers and said the meals delivered in the first seven months of 2020 have already outpaced the total meals delivered in 2019.

“The need is increasing,” Lichti said. “And all our fitness programs were seeing the same or record numbers this year before we had to close. That’s a concern for us, that we no longer can let people gather inside to exercise and work on strength and balance.”

Nutrition and fitness aren’t the only services provided; once a month, Osborn meets one senior to help her load minutes onto her cell phone.

“Helping people troubleshoot and problem-solve is a regular job here, whether it’s finding legal aid, technological assistance, or hiring in-home care, we’re happy to do it,” Osborn said. “My favorite part of the job is coming out of my office and interacting with people. It’s such a gift to be able to serve this community.”

SWOT often partners with other nonprofits to support seniors in multi-faceted ways; seniors can make appointments to pick up food pantry supplies, and the animal shelter is delivering free cat and dog food to the senior center.

“It’s really neat that this nonprofit community is so tightly woven,” Osborn said. “We do referrals all the time and try collectively to tackle a client from every angle in terms of assistance.”

She said she wishes more seniors understood the range of what SWOT has to offer.

“Some people think our programs are only for low-income seniors, or that we’re an assisted living facility. And we have seniors here who are so active and fit that they don’t consider themselves part of our clientele. Or people don’t want to ask for help. No one wants to feel like a burden, and they’re not,” Osborn emphasized. “It is a gift for us to come help, or just talk.”

She added that people in Teton Valley can help seniors in lots of ways.

“Check on your neighbor, and continue to do so,” she said. “Offer to do a grocery run and chat with them for a few minutes. Make the calls to your family members who are far away and encourage them to connect with their local senior centers. And I know masks are no fun to wear, but if I could make a plea to people here: do it for the seniors. Masks and six feet of distance for seniors. It’s the least we can do for the elders of our community.”

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