Skip to content



A place to call their own; New Shirley Senior Center opens this week


SHIRLEY — After his wife Rita died in 2000, Harold Smith started visiting the senior center in Pepperell where he took part in counseling and other activities for seniors.

The retired George Frost Co. supervisor kept busy in other ways, too. He worked for the School Department, and as a driver for both Montachusett Home Care, of Leominster, and Worcester Family Services.

He eventually asked why the Shirley Council on Aging did not have active programming in which he could take part.

Former selectman Chip Guercio was the de facto council director so the town could apply for grants but nobody was organizing activities, Smith said.

Smith put together a new council, starting with hold-over Marcia Sullivan who was on the stagnant council, and enlisted seven others, most of whom he met at the post office.

From that modest beginning emerged a new Senior Center that opened this week.

“To me it’s a dream come true,” Smith said last week. “I started it but didn’t think it would go this far. I have to credit my eight council members … (and) our director.”

John Oelfke is the council’s part-time director.

Oelfke and the council is drafting a new slate of activities for seniors that were not possible while they met in Town Offices the past two years.

The only organized activities until now have been the drop-in center Tuesdays through Thursdays, bridge games on Tuesdays, free manicures by Selectman Kendra Dumont Tuesday mornings, and a weekly movie.

A draft schedule that is still being refined includes new activities such as line dancing, chair yoga, tai-chi, painting, arts and crafts classes, Scrabble tournaments and a book club.

The Senior Center is the former Center School at 9 Parker Road that the School Department turned over to the council in January 2009.

The 80-year-old building is 3,288 square feet on 3.6 acres with an assessed value of $685,300, according to the town Assessor’s Office.

The town agreed to give the council $125,000 in seed money from prison mitigation funding it receives from the state for being home to two state prisons.

The council tried to get a Proposition 2 1/2 override at the Special Town Meeting last fall to pay for heat and electricity over the winter but fell short of the necessary votes so it has waited until warmer weather, with longer days that provide natural lighting, to open.

The building is divided into three areas, Oelfke said.

“The idea is to take various areas of the building and utilize them in a way to maximize services and programs,” he said.

There is a drop-in center for seniors 60 years old and over to hang-out, play cards or board games, and socialize.

There is an activities area for physical endeavors, and a well-furnished media room with tables and plush sofas for quiet pursuits.

“It’s a place seniors can call their own and hope to develop a sense of community, like a congregation,” Oelfke said.

Nobody knows how many hours of volunteer labor went into the conversion from schoolhouse to Senior Center, said Jon Pender, chairman of the building committee.

The building was mostly gutted and rebuilt with volunteer labor, he said.

Students from Shriver Job Corps did much of the demolition about a year ago.

Retired architect Don Reed designed the interior.

“I did a couple of rough sketches, we would meet once a week,” said Reed who hailed Pender as the driving force in the renovation. “They would quibble and say what about this or that.”

When contractors volunteered, they suggested more money-saving ideas so the plans remained in flux until the work was finished, Reed said.

The drop-in center and activities area are divided by portable partitions to create a larger space if needed.

The media room, has a three-quarters wall to take advantage of the lighting from the rest of the building, Pender said.

Nancy Siedlewski, Ruth Halloran, Viola Burnley and Nellie Poirier were wrapping up their regular game of Scrabble in the town offices about noon last Tuesday when they agreed they are looking forward to playing in the new Senior Center.

“Everyone is getting very excited about the new center,” Burnley said. “We’re inviting everyone we see to come up there.”

Dick Henry said he went to school there and will use the new center. “Maybe I’ll learn something up there this time,” he said.

The Council on Aging served as many as 235 seniors at least 60 years old last year but there are more than 1,000 seniors in town, Oelfke said. He said the council hopes the new center will draw more seniors.

The Townsend Senior Center opened its new facility in October and popularity of programming exploded, said Council on Aging Director Christine Clish.

The council had 75 to 100 active members when the Senior Center was in the Center shopping plaza but that has doubled, Clish said. Clish’s council is taking advantage of its enlarged space and has gone from 14 to 31 programs.

“One thing we ran into, we were so used to having one activity at a time because we only had that one space, now we had all these rooms we could have all these activities; the scheduling took a little practice,” she said. “The seniors themselves, it was an adjustment for them because now they have to choose what program they want to go to.”

The council is asking the town for $16,500 to operate the building in the next fiscal year, Oelfke said. That would keep the Senior Center open four mornings a week for a full year, he said.

The building would be kept open in the afternoons as long as the weather is warm and the days are long enough, Oelfke said.

“We’re looking for grant money to both create the programming and operate the programs but grants, by definition, are not guaranteed,” Oelfke said.