By DENISE FEDOROW Correspondent
---- — NAPPANEE — The accolades were coming from all over at an impromptu retirement party held Dec. 30 for Connie Fink, Elder Haus Senior Center director.
From the seniors who frequent the center in Nappanee to her employees, to the mayor who presented Fink with the key to the city — all spoke about what a treasure she is and how much she’ll be missed.
“She’s a very kind and wonderful person and she’ll be missed,” said Doris Hoffman, who has been frequenting the center for a couple of years.
Her employees agree.
Max Bigler, who retired this year after being an Elder Haus van driver, was present for the party. “We came the same year and I guess we’re leaving the same year,” Bigler said and spoke of how often Fink came to see him when he was in the nursing home. “She’s been a gem to work for. She was after me to retire for a couple of years. I appreciate her a lot.”
Changes over the years
Fink started working at the Elder Haus as a part-time assistant director 15 years ago. She said when former director Dee Leavitt called her about the job she was babysitting her grandchildren and working a couple of days a week in a retail shop.
“I’d never really thought about working with seniors before,” Fink said.
But Leavitt encouraged her to give it a try and the hours were flexible. Two years later when Leavitt was ready to retire, Fink was offered the position of director.
“By that time I loved it so I thought I would try full-time work,” she said.
At that time the senior center (along with the Masonic Lodge) was located in one of the historic Coppes homes along Market Street. It wasn’t the best location as it wasn’t handicap-accessible and parking was limited. So when city officials decided to buy the old Central School building and make it a multi-use building, the senior center was relocated. The building is also home to senior apartments, the Boys & Girls Club and The Crossing School.
The process to purchase and renovate the building began in 2002 and Fink believes it was after Thanksgiving in 2004 when they opened the doors in the renovated first-grade and kindergarten classrooms where she attended as a child.
That was one of the major changes during her tenure as director. Then in 2006, Elder Haus became a Real Services site. Moving the program to Elder Haus made it all that more accessible to seniors. Lunch is served daily during the week for a minimal cost.
Another big change was losing the van, affectionately nicknamed “Max 1” after Bigler, in the tornado that tore through town Oct. 18, 2007. Fink started a grant process to replace the van. A second van and a second driver were added as ridership increased.
Randy Hoffman started as a substitute driver for the senior center. Hoffman is now a part-time employee helping with transportation and the phones. Two other part-time drivers have since been added.
The center added more exercise equipment and a Wii, which many of the seniors enjoy using, Elder Haus officials said.
Elder Haus is open five days a week from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and offers puzzles, cards, games, quilting, exercise, Real Services lunch, coffee and special activities, including going out to lunch, to plays at the Round Barn Theatre and a monthly “mystery trip.”
Fink said her biggest challenge has probably been getting seniors in the door the first time to see all that the Elder Haus offers.
“If we could get more seniors to come and see what we offer — see what a homey place we have and how much fun we have here,” she believes even more seniors would attend.
What has brought her the most satisfaction is “learning to know all the different personalities and have them become like family. When people are here five days a week they become like family.”
She said if she could have one wish granted for the center it would be that more seniors participate.
“The days here are so enjoyable,” she said. “If they knew how nice it is to just get out and have lunch, or even coffee and cookies. We have a lot of fun here.”
Regular visitors to the center also wanted to get the word out about the center. One woman said, “People in Nappanee don’t know how lucky they are to have this place here — to have free van service within the city — not many places do.”
Doris Hoffman also spoke of how fortunate the city is, saying when she lived in another state she had to pay $11 to $14 for the bus.
Key to the city
Nappanee Mayor Larry Thompson and some department heads stopped at the center to wish Fink well. City officials held a luncheon for her the week before, too.
The mayor first presented Fink with a gift as a representation of her careful use of funds. He gave her 15 legal-sized pads with the 2013 city letterhead and teased her by saying, “As frugal as you are if you use one a year these may last a lifetime.”
Thompson had Fink share how she turned in loose change she’d found around the center with her year-end report.
He presented her with the key to the city and thanked her for her years of service. “God Bless, Connie — what a gal,” he said.
Fink said she has no real plans after retirement other than to rest and visit her children and family.
Hoffman also praised Connie saying, “She’s been a pleasure to work for. You couldn’t ask for a better boss — honest as the day is long. She’s our ‘little spinning tornado’ and we’ll miss her.”
“I’m really thankful for the job — for the opportunity I had to be the Elder Haus director,” Fink said. “I feel I’ve been blessed. I will surely miss the people who’ve become like family.”