A special treat arrives in downtown Minneapolis on Halloween. Expect clowns, witches and maybe a pirate or two among those gathering Oct. 31 for the IDS Center Crystal Court’s annual carved pumpkin contest.
“Children aren’t the only ones who like to have a good time,” said 90-year-old Joanne Labernik of Minnetonka, who’s organizing a group of seniors to watch the judging.
The get-together isn’t just for fun. Labernik is among many older adults bereft at the closing of the Skyway Senior Center in March.
The Halloween gathering, which begins at noon (judging at 1 p.m.), is a way to “renew old friendships” and scare up support for an urgently needed replacement.
“I chose IDS because it’s right in the center of the city,” Labernik said. “I feel seniors need to be seen. If we come in costume, they’re going to see us.”
Operating on a $185,000 annual budget, the Skyway Senior Center relied on private funding and in-kind support from the city of Minneapolis. Despite repeated attempts to keep it open, supporters were unable to find an ongoing sponsor.
Other gathering spots for seniors have suffered the same blow. The 40-year-old Southwest Senior Center in Minneapolis closed in June when United Way funding was slashed in half. St. Paul’s City Passport, jointly operated by the city of St. Paul and HealthEast Care System, closed last November due to what funders said was low use.
The Skyway Senior Center opened in 2001. Labernik, a proponent of lifelong learning, was on a committee of seniors advising then-Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton. Labernik felt strongly that there should be a special place for seniors in the downtown area.
“We could learn a lot from others [working downtown] and we could have programs to learn a lot of things, too,” she said.
The center, which operated out of the same building as the downtown Target, quickly became a hub of activity for as many as 70 people a day, ages 50 and up. Participants enjoyed movies and free popcorn, speakers, a lunch bunch, book club, exercise classes and live entertainment.
Sayles Belton attended special parties there, Labernik said, as did Mayor R.T. Rybak and City Council President Barbara Johnson.
By the end of 2015, UCare, which had sponsored the center, was unable to continue financially. Various attempts were made to find funding without success, leaving Labernik and other regulars surprised and upset.
“The saddest part is that the fastest growing segment of the population is seniors,” said 81-year-old Barbara Nylen of Minneapolis, who led classes in nutrition.
“People would come two or three times a week,” added Don Leners, 85, of northeast Minneapolis. “It became a club. You’d get to know people. People felt they had a place to belong.”
And once a year, it was the place for costume creativity. Labernik and her late partner, Wally Johnson, typically dressed as clowns, ghosts or Paul Bunyan and his sweetheart. “He was a good sport about it,” she said.
Regular center-goer Howard Carson, 73, transformed into the Jolly Green Giant.
Target supplied gift cards to costume contest winners. Hershey’s supplied candy.
“We’re all kids at heart,” Nylen said.
“As seniors, Halloween triggers memories of your childhood,” she said. “You really don’t move away from those.”
Nylen vividly remembers planning for Halloween for months as a child. “Where were we going to go? We couldn’t go far. We couldn’t be pesty. We were allowed to ring the bell only once.”
Center regular Mae Range, 85, of Minneapolis remembers her brother filling up an Army jeep with kids.
“If we didn’t get a treat, we’d do a trick.”
“We won’t do anything that destructive,” Labernik promised of the IDS event, which got the blessing of IDS management.
“If there’s something fun, we tend to allow those types of things to happen,” said Deb Kolar, general manager of IDS Center whose annual event features as many as 30 inspired pumpkins.
“They really just wanted a place to gather. Sure, come on over.” Management, however, will not be in costume.
Labernik noted that Minneapolis Central Library on Nicollet Mall has helped to fill the void by adding two days of senior programming weekly, from 9:30 a.m. to noon. And her crew is heartened that downtown Westminster Presbyterian Church is exploring the possibility of hosting a program for seniors once its expanded facility opens in early 2018.
Until then, they’re going to howl to be heard.
“We want to show ’em the power of seniors,” Labernik said.
“We are here. Don’t ignore us.”