The El Campo Heritage Center is more than just a gathering place for those 50 and older. It’s a place to renew friendships and strengthen the mind, body and soul through special programs.
The center was renovated 10 years ago in August of 2008, but did not officially open until January 2009.
As the former Northside high school cafeteria, the building was in great disrepair and because of one woman’s vision for a seniors’ center, it was eventually transformed into the facility one sees today.
Rita Radley, who had just lost her husband, had requested donations be made in his memory to the church she attends as well as the Boys & Girls Club. At this time Gorden Sorrell approached her to see if she would consider adding the Wharton County Community Foundation to her list of donations. During this conversation, they began to talk about the old Northside buildings and in particular what the former high school cafeteria was being utilized for.
“We came to this building (old Northside),” she said, “and I asked Gorden, ‘What is this old high school cafeteria building used for?’”
He went on to tell her it was used two to three times a year for the Wharton County Retired Teachers’ meetings. Other organizations, like AARP, had also used the main room for their meetings.
“It was a mess,” she said. “But the front room was decent. I told him ‘it’s a shame this building can’t be available on a daily basis for older people.’”
Sorrell’s reply, she remembers, “We’ve been looking for someone to head one (seniors center) up.”
“I just opened my mouth,” Radley said. “My husband had just died and I needed something to keep me busy.”
So Radley tossed the idea around with her granddaughter, Terri Jones, who was living in the Dallas area at the time with plans to move back to El Campo.
“I was moving back to El Campo and my grandmother asked me what I was going to do in El Campo with a gerontology degree. I said maybe I could work at a senior center ... and she said we didn’t have one, but that she always thought we needed one.
I did an internship at the senior citizens (center) of greater Dallas where we got the idea for some of the programs,” Jones said.
With Jones’ expertise in gerontology, she assisted her grandmother in forming a board that began the process of their vision. This included plans being drawn up by a local architect, forming a corporation, other legal matters and finally the renovations being done, also by a local business.
“We needed to get the corporation formed and needed a little bit of money to do that so I put in some ) ... the four of us (board members), we funded that,” Radley said.
El Campo Heritage Center Inc. was approved Jan. 19, 2004 and on April 20, 2005, Northside Health Center Inc. committed the building to the Heritage Center which was later deeded to the Center on Jan. 3, 2008.
Fundraising efforts followed and Radley began writing grants. Jones served as president, Radley as vice president, Tom Perilloux was second vice president and Edgar Roades was treasurer. According to Radley, Theresa McNew, now Theresa Ramsey, “was a big help. She did a lot of work on the building part.”
“We received grants from Gulf Coast Medical Foundation and the Johnson Foundation,” she said. “That was $200,000 from each. And the Meadows Foundation gave us $50,000. The Trull Foundation gave us a small amount. Then we went out to the public.”
Engraved bricks in the garden area as well as naming rights to rooms were sold to raise funds. The center has and continues to receive monetary support from the city and some organizations like the Rotary Club of El Campo.
But to help with expenses in renovating the old building, the center still needed more, so they borrowed $175,000. That has been fully paid.
Others were instrumental in the center’s success, like Margaret Smidt who came on board as president after Radley stepped down.
“We did quite a few fundraisers,” she said. “My goal was to put money in the bank to pay off that debt. That was my goal and we paid it off in eight years.”
Next in charge was Julie Fredrickson and at present Frank Kacal heads up the facility which is run by volunteers with the outside help for cleaning floors and bathrooms. It has operated this way since the doors opened in January 2009.
The Center is seeing some wear, though, and Kacal says fundraising efforts will be needed in order to pay to replace the building’s aging roof and air conditioning unit.
“We recently painted the whole outside of the building,” he said.
The facility is open Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m., offering several programs and activities. The exercise room, with about 14 machines, is open during that time. Another opportunity for seniors to get their exercise workout takes place three days a week, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, with stretching exercises starting at 9 a.m. followed by the main exercise session at 9:30 a.m.
Seniors can take advantage of the covered dish luncheons, usually following a particular theme, held the first Thursday of each month.
Those fascinated by Texas history can listen to former history professor Joe Tom Davis as he gives a program the first Wednesday of the month September through May. The public is welcome to attend. For some gaming fun, bingo is held twice a month on the second and fourth Tuesday at 2 p.m. at no cost to members. Prizes are awarded and coffee and desserts are also provided, oftentimes with local business donations.
Members come in and play dominoes Tuesday and Friday afternoons. And a pool table is also available for those who are interested.
You’re never too old to learn to master a computer, either, as the center has a couple available for use in the library.
The main hall and kitchen is rented out for weddings, receptions and parties.
The Center is open to all persons 50 years and older and several members actually come from neighboring towns to take advantage of the programs offered there. Membership is $50 per year.
To learn more, call 543-1112 or go by the facility, 803 Fahrenthold.