Editor's note: Our Community United is a five-part series that will be published occasionally through the end of the year. The stories will highlight programs supported by United Way of the Black Hills.
Newfound freedom brought Corinne Darrow to the Custer Senior Center.
“I came to the center around 2001 after my husband had died,” Darrow said in an interview. “I needed something to do.”
But as a recent retiree of the Forest Service, Darrow wasn’t looking for work.
“I just wanted to volunteer, and I knew the senior center was there, so I decided I would take a stab at that. I’ve been here ever since,” Darrow said.
The Custer Senior Center is one of 55 nonprofit partners that rely on annual assistance from the United Way of the Black Hills. This year, the organization’s fundraising goals are $2.32 million for the Black Hills area and $1.95 million for Rapid City.
The senior center also raises its own funds with events like its soup and pie luncheon and bake sale and by renting its main floor to Harley-Davidson each summer during the Sturgis Rally. But it’s the events and opportunity to socialize that seem to bring the center’s approximately 290 members back.
Card games, billiards, ping pong, bingo, line dancing, computer classes, arts and crafts, movies and popcorn and exercise programs are just a few of the center’s offerings. It also assists people with signing up for the local Meals on Wheels program and sponsors blood pressure screenings, bone density heel scans and flu shot clinics.
Educational programs range from Medicare assistance, eye care, diabetes and general health care to political cracker-barrels, consumer information and forest management policies in the Black Hills.
“It’s really more of a community center than it is a senior center,” said Darrow. “We don’t care how old they are. It’s a place for them to come just to drink coffee or play cards or socialize … just to be out of their apartments.”
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Jill Kettle, the center’s director for the past 11 year, says the center provides a close-knit community for many people who wouldn’t have much opportunity for socializing and making new friends otherwise.
“People come into here for just about anything and everything,” Kettle said. “The senior center is so important to the community. It is the focal point.”
As Custer becomes more of a retirement community, Kettle said the center will only grow in size and importance to the area.
“I know people are full of gratitude for what the senior center does for them,” Kettle said. “I just get a lot of people that are always in my office, and they’re thanking me. They come in here and tell me a lot of their problems, and I’m like a counselor to some of them.”
“I’m getting kind of emotional here.”
Darrow said her favorite part of the center was the morning exercise classes she attends with friends. Four days per week, a group of them meet in the building’s basement at 7 a.m. for an hour of exercise.
“It gives me a reason to get up in the morning,” she said of the class and of volunteering at the center. Last year she and a group of the friends she’s made at the center took a six-day, 188-mile whitewater rafting trip through the Grand Canyon.
“We do things together like that, and this is people that I’ve met at the center,” she said.
And if that sounds interesting to anyone, Darrow made clear that all are welcome.
“We don’t expect anybody that stops by to become a member, but at least they can stop by and say hello,” she said. “The coffee pot is always on.”