Birtie Forster (left), Lily Holbrook (center) and Louise Sampson (right) walk out of Hasselbring Senior Center after spending part of the morning together socializing. Santiago Ochoa
FLINT, Michigan -- North Flint is home to thousands of senior citizens who by choice or circumstance decided to stay in Flint long after its historic economic downturn in the 1970s and 80s. As those same citizens approach the autumnal stages of their lives, Hassebring Senior Center (HSC) has become a school, a gym, a restaurant, and most importantly a second home for many of them.
HSC shares its name and the land it sits on with Hasselbring Park. Together, the two institutions have created a community hub of sorts, not only for Brownell-Holmes’ senior citizens but for senior citizens across Flint. During the COVID-19 pandemic, HSC was forced to postpone many of its events and services.
Though the center never fully closed, the fear of contracting COVID-19 paired with federal, state, and local restrictions on gathering places means the halls of Hasselbring have remained mostly empty. For a while, only vital services like food delivery programs, legal services, and veterans affairs services were available. Seniors felt Hasselbring’s absence.
Gloria Robinson, a Brownell-Holmes resident and senior citizen, says for many of her friends, Hasselbring is like a second home.
“Some people, they rely on the center, it was the only place that they have to keep them going,” she said. “It was the only place where they were able to socialize and mingle and see other people … There is always something that you’re looking forward to doing at the center. It’s almost like a family thing.”
It’s no exaggeration, either, to say there is always something happening at the center. According to Beverly Lewis, HSC’s director, the center constantly hosts classes, concerts, lunches and similar events that can bring Flint’s senior citizens together.
One of these classes, which proved to be particularly important during the early months of quarantine, was a series of technology literacy classes which taught senior citizens in the area how to more effectively use electronics like cell phones and computers.
For a while, cell phones were the only means of communication for many senior citizens. Being able to get the most out of their devices was crucial, Lewis says.
“If they (seniors) don’t have children or grandchildren coming around a lot, then it’s like having a valuable tool in your hand that you’re not able to use,” Lewis said. “You’re not able to use this thing that can really benefit you.”
Hasselbring’s attention to detail and dedication to its visitors shines through in programs like its technology classes. Rather than host a demonstration on how to use smart devices to a group of individuals with different levels of knowledge, Lewis brought in what she calls Youth Ambassadors.
Mostly made of up teens, the group of ambassadors is able to give one-on-one instructions to seniors. This helps eliminate the confusion of having to distinguish between iPhones, Android phones, different versions of operating systems, and so on.
While tedious sounding at first, Robinson says the tech classes opened up a source of communication and entertainment for her and many of her friends.
“A lot of people didn’t know the amount of accessibility on their phones,” Robinson said. “They didn’t know how to operate them.”
Birtie Forster, a friend of Robinson’s who also frequents the center, says she can’t wait for classes to start again. “I’ll be glad when it (HSC) opens up more so I can take more classes … Sometimes I try to help myself but I get it wrong,” Forster says.
HSC’s services go far beyond just tech classes, however. Robinson and Forster said Hasselbring has offered them everything from classes on holistic methods to treat arthritis pain, arts and crafts sessions, to safe practices for self-medicating and even a dance group called the Hasselbring Hustlers which has been around for over seven years.
Most recently, Hasselbring hosted an outdoor Jazz concert with guest musicians you’d be more likely to see at the Capitol Theatre or The Whiting than at a park in north Flint.
Appearances included Al Lindsey, a truly world-renowned R&B singer based out of Saginaw with songs currently charting in Canada and the UK, and Duane Parham, one of Motown’s most beloved saxophonists. Other acts included Nikell Johnson, a singer, and Flint native and standup comic Melvin Bender.
Lindsey, who has played hundreds of gigs in multiple countries, said he personally enjoyed performing for the small crowd at Hasselbring.
“The way it all came together was really beautiful … you could tell from the dancing that folks were having fun,” he said.
While the pandemic has been particularly stressful for the seniors across the country, Flint’s own senior citizens have been able to safely interact with one another all while receiving help and advice on how to navigate the new normal they all find themselves in.
Robinson says fear of COVID-19 among people her age is high and for that reason, many have been missing out on the resources the center offers. Despite Hasselbring following all COVID-19 instructions and precautions, she says some are still not willing to risk it.
“I feel like people shouldn’t give up on Hasselbring,” Robinson said. “They’re still open for whatever your needs are. They can help us in any kind of way.”