Serving up a healthy lifestyle in Sitka

"This is the heart of Sitka for so many seniors."

Anita VanDyck shared this with me as she was busy serving desserts, fresh fruit cups, to several tables at Swan Lake Senior Center for the Friday noon meal. Anita is a longtime volunteer there.

Fridays are Bingo days at the center and site manager Sandi Koval had assured me there would be quite a crowd. About 40 people had gathered there on a bleak, damp Sitka day, but inside there was sunshine. The minute I entered, I felt welcomed, almost as though I had come home.

Frank Roth was there to greet me, in the doorway before either of us had a chance to take off our raincoats. He wanted me to know that Sitka is "full of bright, creative people," and that many seniors fitting that description were at the center that day, loyal attendees.

Frank taught at Sheldon Jackson College for about 30 years, eventually becoming dean of students, and his wife, Ruth, had been a nurse at the Sitka Pioneer Home. He opened right up.

"She's 89 and I'm 87. We love to talk," he added with a wide smile. I was immediately drawn to the twinkle in his eyes.

"Oh, look over there," he burst out. "There's the person who replaced me as dean of students at Sheldon Jackson. He was hired to save the college after me!" There was that twinkle.

So we wandered over to the table where this rescuer was seated. I learned the rescuer's name, Dr. Dan Etulain, and, yes, he and the others at the table did indeed love to talk.

"I was dean of students, and now I'm dean of this table," Dan declared. The others seated there nodded, not about to disagree. "This is a great senior center." He wanted that known, and the fact that he would welcome more ice cream on the menus.

"This is a crazy table," he added – "certified! You'd love it." I wasn't about to disagree with that either. They were having too much fun.

That became even more evident when the Bingo game broke out. There was a lot of noise from that particular corner, bordering on a ruckus. When I had time to sit quietly with Sandi in her office, I learned that dedication to volunteering was significantly represented among those seated at that happy table.

There's Colin Arnold, 87, an avid rose gardener, who's volunteered in the kitchen, doing dishes, for about 20 years.

And there's Karl Burkhart. "He's always here cleaning after a meal," Sandi reports. "He's done that for 11 years."

I watched Karl that day, grabbing a mop and going to work after the Bingo game broke up.

All of this bears witness to Anita's comment that Swan Lake Senior Center represents the heart of Sitka for seniors. They give back.

"We are so dependent on volunteers," Sandi states. "We have a small staff."

Sandi's been manager of the center for about seven months, and it's a place and work she's grown quickly to love.

"It's our belief that maintaining daily nutrition and spirit-lifting social connections are key to the health of all persons," she says. She stresses the center's emphasis on good nutrition. "The once-simple task of preparing well-balanced meals can become a true hardship and even an impossible task for many of our seniors. Their participation in our meal program ensures us – and often their families – that their loved ones are maintaining health-promoting routines."

A dietician in Juneau approves the center meals developed by the staff.

Sandi shares great pride in the transportation services provided through Swan Lake Senior Center, too. "We have a Care-A-Van service for our seniors, five vans, and it amazes me that our relatively small operation provides 1,200 to 1,400 rides each month."

For those unable to come to the center, there is a home-delivered meal service.

"Sometimes the person making the home deliveries is the only person the senior will see in a typical day. The drivers deliver more than just food."

In addition to the nutrition and transportation services, Sandi describes other programs offered there.

"Our activities are all senior-driven."

Programs with varying schedules are workouts labeled "Strong and Steady," tai chi, chair aerobics, dance sessions, and a Better Brains program. And of course there is the Friday Bingo.

"Volunteers are such a key to all of this," Sandi reiterates. "There are lots of volunteer opportunities here – for individuals and for groups from other populations and age demographics, bringing the community together to interact with the seniors."

She lights up when telling of one particular group.

"There's a really cool project involving fifth graders from a Sitka elementary school. They come for lunch on Mondays during the school year, four kids at a time, rotating. They serve lunch and then visit. It is so cool."

Sandi offers a personal story.

"My mother had a series of strokes. I left Sitka and went to Alabama to take care of her. After a while, I realized that I wanted her last years to be in Sitka, so I brought her back here. There is such a network of wonderful, amazing senior services here. They do so much to promote healthy living for our seniors and other populations in need of assistance."

She names off Southeast Alaska Independent Living, Braveheart Volunteers, Center for Community and Sitka Tribe of Alaska.

"In caring for my mother here in Sitka, I found out the truth of the image – 'it takes a village.' Sitka took good care of my mom."

Sandi adds that Swan Lake Senior Center is in a three-way cooperative with Sitka Tribe of Alaska and Center for Community. It operates under the umbrella of Catholic Community Service (CCS) through its Southeast Senior Services (SESS) division, with SESS focusing on developing quality services and community resources for seniors throughout Southeast Alaska. SESS has developed its original four senior centers in Angoon, Juneau, Ketchikan and Sitka into a network of 14 senior centers throughout Southeast Alaska. A map of these services by location is available at

I left Swan Lake Senior Center that Friday, as some proud, victorious seniors carried out their Bingo prizes. The heart of the place was obvious. Back in the kitchen, Colin was washing all the dishes, and Karl was still swinging his mop, cleaning up the floors. Memories of my warm welcome and visits with cheerful seniors followed me out into the Sitka rain.

People interested in the center and its activities can call (907) 747-8617 for specific information.