Denise Andersen became director of the North Big Horn Senior Citizens Center at 38 years old. She spent the next 27 years “growing into” the job.
“I like to say I have aged with the job,” she said. “When I first started working here I was working for seniors. Now I am one.”
Andersen will retire at the end of the month from a job that has not only grown with her but on her and into a career that has been very satisfying and rewarding.
She started working at the Center as a secretary. After a few short months, then director Donna Olsen announced that she was retiring. Andersen applied for the job and replaced Olsen as the Center’s director in October of 1992.
“I felt like I could do the job, so I applied for it,” she explained. “I wasn’t really looking for a career, I was just looking for a job and that job turned into a career. That’s just how it worked out.”
Previously she had worked at the Wyoming Boys School and had just moved to the area from Worland due to her husband’s job-related transfer to the area.
“I jumped from working with those who had no moral values to working with those who created the moral value,” said Andersen. “It was a jump from youth to elderhood, and it was quite a leap.”
Andersen brought a unique perspective to the job.
“My goal was always for seniors to take ownership of their Center,” she said. “Over the years it became the hub of aging information, resources, education and socialization. It’s a different atmosphere here because there’s a lot of feeling of ownership on the part of its members. I don’t remember it feeling that way before.”
Andersen said she never felt like she “owned” the Center. Instead, she’s always felt the Center owned her. She said she’s always felt an obligation to the members of the Center to implement their ideas. Whether it’s trying a new idea for an educational program or an idea for a social event, she said she’s always tried to follow through out of respect for the Center’s membership.
“My attitude has always been to try everything and that’s the way we’ve done things around here,” she said. “It’s worked out well.”
She attributed the success of many of the programs at the Center to its members.
“I have met the most interesting people since I’ve been here and have been able to consult all along the way with some of the most knowledgeable, caring and incredible people,” she said. “Basically, I’ve been working with the cream of the crop, in my opinion.
“Every senior has been ultimately my boss. I’ve always tried to be answerable and accountable to each and every one of them. I hope I have made them feel important, because they are.”
Andersen said she made it her mission to partner with other entities in the community, like local law enforcement, the hospital, the public health department, schools, veterans groups and the local newspaper. She said she feels these partnerships have helped “get the word out” about issues that are of importance to the Center’s membership. It also led to programs honoring local veterans, local history, educational opportunities for seniors and more.
“The business of aging has become very complicated, and I think it’s become even more complicated in the social media age,” said Andersen. “There are millions of gadgets in our world today compared to 27 years ago. When I first came here we were using a Selectric typewriter. There were no computers or Internet. The world has changed and the Center has changed with it.”
Andersen said, though the size of the senior citizen population has remained about the same over the years, in her view members have become much more active, with overall participation numbers looking better compared to previous years.
She noted that the Center keeps better statistics than in the past due to a plethora of funding requirements.
“We have a lot more requirements in terms of keeping track of things than we did 27 years ago,” she said. “In that respect, much more justification of funding is required.”
Safety is also carefully monitored with inspections required on a regular basis to meet both state and federal requirements for food, health, fire safety and more.
“We have inspectors of literally every shape and size here at all times and at any time,” she said.
Andersen said one of her proudest accomplishments was her involvement in the formation of the senior services district. As a district, the Center is eligible for 1 mill in tax dollars, providing much needed funding to keep the Center going.
“Being able to have a future funding source is important,” she said. “The state legislature had a great deal of foresight at the time. They could foresee the future of senior centers and it was not a bright light at that time. State funding never picked up. Federal funding was always static. Costs were rising and we needed to find a consistent funding source to keep our centers and senior services alive.
“We were afforded the opportunity to create a district and at the time (about 20 years ago) our county commissioners were all for it. We were put on the ballot and the voters unanimously said yes. That community support means so much to us. We really appreciate it.”
Andersen said she feels very good about the current state of the Center.
“I feel like I’m going out with a flourish,” said Andersen. “The Center is doing so well right now. Everything is so good and so healthy. It is now one of the jewels of the area. I foresee a wonderful future for the Senior Center and am happy to have played a part in it.”
She attributed the success of the Center to its stable work force and the many volunteers who fill in where paid employees cannot.
“This is not a job that anyone can do by themselves,” she said. “I have had so many people around me, helping me with everything I do. I think the mark of a successful person is the people around them, and I have been so fortunate for so many years to have such a wonderful team of like-minded people that believe people come first. I just can’t say enough about the people who have worked for me and with me and by my side.”
Andersen said she sees the growing importance of the services offered by senior centers across the nation.
“Some of our issues are senior issues but are also world issues,” she said. “There are a lot of us out there now. Sixty-five is the new 35. We’re not going to sit by and just rock away. We’re going to make sure we have the tools we need to have a successful aging life. I think centers like this one will continue to evolve and become more and more important in the life of every senior citizen.”
By Patti Carpenter