Fellowship and Fun for Seniors
August 6, 2015
By Karel Lucander
“I think back to the old people I knew when I was growing up, and they always seemed larger than life.”—Chinua Achebe, Nigerian novelist
They are in their 80s, 90s, even 100 years old, and they come here to see what the day offers. They gather for crafts, bingo and Bible study, but they also boogie to the beat of line dancing and get their groove on at Zumba gold classes. They all make their way to Mercy Endeavors Senior Center in New Orleans, Louisiana, to see friends, learn new skills and expand their horizons. They participate in hat-decorating contests, high tea parties, gospel fests, and birthday bashes. These folks are excited about doing, learning and chatting—they’re not ready to sit back and whittle away the hours in solitude.
“Our seniors raised their children and worked all their lives, and they never had time for hobbies,” says Sister Jane Briseño, executive director of the Mercy Endeavors Senior Center. “Now they’re learning different things. We just finished a course in embroidery, and they are so pleased and happy when they see their final products. Once they see what they can do, it gives them a renewed spirit and life. They’ve shown me that no matter how old you are, you can find something new and exciting to try. We have a 100-year-old member whose son is a doctor. He says he believes his mother is still alive because she comes here often. We know ourselves that those who come here stay more positive and healthy.”
And thanks to Sister Jane, their meeting place is thriving and even expanding. Mercy Endeavors Senior Center, which opened in 1997, has grown from 13 members to more than 100. Most of them have incomes below poverty level, and 96 percent are African-American. The center is located in St. Alphonsus Parish, a section of New Orleans that still is evolving since its devastation from Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.
Today at Mercy Endeavors, Sister Jane says, “a committed, wonderful staff of 10 mostly part-time employees” assists with the daily tasks. Sister Jane has been there from the start, after helping to open the senior center.
“We opened up Mercy Endeavors right here in the St. Alphonsus Convent,” she says. “We moved upstairs and left the downstairs for the senior center. It was near the school, a clinic, all in the same block area, so I thought it was well positioned. Now after seeking state funding for nine years and through our own grant writing and fundraising, we’ve broken ground on a larger facility that will do more for our aging population. It is such a privilege to be able to serve the elderly here. The need drew me in, and I’ve just loved it!” she says. The new facility will be located just eight blocks away.
Prior to her current ministry, Sister Jane was a teacher, a diaconal staff person and a director of ministry preparation. Born and raised in Slaton, Texas, she received her bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Harris Teachers College in St. Louis, Missouri, and a master’s in theology from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas. In July she’ll celebrate 48 years with the Sisters of Mercy.
“I will always be grateful to my sisters, and I thank God I am very happy with my ministry and my calling,” she says. “When you ask the seniors at our center how they are doing, they will say, ‘I am blessed!’ And that is exactly how I feel every day, blessed.”