St. James Place residents use gifts, talents as volunteers in community
Residents of St. James Place retirement center say they are busier now than when they held full-time jobs. Many are spending their leisure time helping others through community work.
“Residents use their gifts and talents to give back,” said Cynthia Michael, director of the St. James Place Foundation. “They volunteer at St. James and in the community.”
“Almost every resident who is physically able is actively involved,” said Virginia Hopper, a resident since 2001.
Diane Rhoads, who taught at LSU and local nursing schools, works with Southeast Ministries, a cooperative effort of 20 congregations representing several denominations, to provide food for the needy in the eastern part of the city. She also works with the women’s group at Broadmoor United Methodist Church and a church quilt group that makes quilts to give to babies when they are baptized.
Dorothy Howell, retired professor of food nutrition and later assistant director of the LSU School of Home Economics, is active with her church, University Baptist, where she has served as a deacon, trustee and senior adult coordinator. She has taught Sunday School since 1975 and continues to serve as an assistant teacher.
In recent years, she developed an interest in life writing and is now working on her third book. She frequently talks to women’s groups about writing memoirs.
In her spare time, she makes weekly flower arrangements for every table in the St. James Place cafeteria.
Judie Dunigan, a retired teacher, started the St. James art gallery because she “got tired of looking at the bare walls.”
Among the residents are several well-known artists as well as others who draw and paint for fun. These artists and other art collectors now share their works with other residents in the convocation room and other locations throughout the facility. The works are rotated every few months.
“Usually we have about 30 or 35 things hanging,” Dunigan said.
Byron Levy studied with many of the leading watercolorists in the country and painted watercolors in New Orleans for the past 60 years. In recent years, he has donated watercolors to several organizations and to the St. James Place Foundation for fundraising.
“When he had an art show at Taylor Clark (Gallery), a whole bus load of residents came,” Dunigan said.
Levy and his wife, Carol, moved to Baton Rouge after Hurricane Katrina.
“When we came here, I had nothing but three pairs of shorts,” Carol Levy said. “But I never met such nice people. They took some things out of the hall so we would have a place to put things. Everybody was wonderful.”
Bill Morgan, a retired chemical engineer and executive with Ethyl Corp. and subsidiaries, is one of 80 reading friends at Magnolia Woods Elementary School.
“There are 50 people from our church (First United Methodist) working with children from kindergarten through third grade,” Morgan said.
He describes Magnolia Woods as a successful school although no longer a neighborhood school because children come from many different areas.
“Ninety-nine percent of the students are minorities,” he said. “The school has a challenge with 50 percent turnover during the year.”
Morgan has also assisted with math tutoring at Magnolia Woods. “The work is important not only from a technical viewpoint of assisting the kids with reading and math but also giving them the opportunity to have experience with a different culture,” he said.
Morgan and his wife, Helen, are involved with Together Baton Rouge and, with several other residents, have participated in a mobile food pantry to deliver food to North Baton Rouge to be distributed to needy families.
“I am fortunate to be physically active at 82,” Bill Morgan said. “I still snow ski actively at an advanced level. I wind surf but not advanced, and we travel internationally. Most recently we went on a three-and-a-half-week safari to Africa.” The Morgans have been on several mission trips including to Africa and Alaska.
Helen Morgan has been a choir singer all her life. In her 40s she went back to school and learned to play the cello. “I played in a volunteer orchestra and went to music camps all summer,” she said. “I lived a charmed life.”
Now Helen Morgan is very involved with a prayer shawl knitting group at First Methodist. “She has done 39 or 40 prayer shawls, all different,” Hopper said. The shawls are made as gifts for people who might need some extra comfort during a trying time.
Hopper, herself, is one of the most active volunteers at St. James Place. She plays the washboard in the St. James Place Rag Tag Not Over the Hill Yet Ensemble, a group that performs at nursing homes and various senior groups and retirement centers.
“We have some spoons and Coke cans with dried beans in them, but we do have a pianist and guitarist to carry the melody,” she said.
A lifelong volunteer, Hopper served as a Girl Scout leader for both of her daughters and a den mother for both sons. She was PTA president at three different schools. She has served as president of the East Baton Rouge Parish Medical Society Alliance as well as the Louisiana State and Southern Medical Association alliances and was a volunteer docent at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center, Magnolia Mound Plantation and the LSU Rural Life Museum.
She has been a Junior League of Baton Rouge River Road Rambler since the group was first organized in 1981. She is very active at First United Methodist Church, where she taught fifth-grade Sunday School for 32 years.
Hopper has served three years as president of the St. James Place Residents Association and on the St. James Place and St. James Place Foundation boards. She is now the chairwoman of the dining committee.
“I’m not a good sitter,” she said.
Many of the residents participate in studies conducted by Pennington including those to measure how subjects are doing mentally and others to see how exercise correlates with mental condition.
“Ed Dunigan has been in one of the Pennington studies for 10 years. He has to live for two years to complete the study,” Judie Dunigan said with a laugh.
Ed Dunigan, who is retired from the Agronomy Department at LSU, is a photographer who has used his hobby to help many community organizations. Several of his photos as well as those of other resident photographers have been used on the fronts of note cards, which are sold in the marketplace at the center.
The proceeds go to the Residency Endowment Fund, which is used for residents who, through no fault of their own, have outlived their resources. “The fund assures that residents never have to leave the community,” Michael said.
Ed Dunigan reorganized the four St. James Place libraries and now maintains them and circulates the books among the four. “This has been our biggest and most successful program for residents,” Judie Dunigan said. “We are a reading group.”
Many residents also participate in the St. James Place Chapter of OLLI at LSU, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, a program of classes presented on all sorts of subjects. So many residents participate in OLLI that the programs are presented daily at St. James Place during OLLI semesters.
A favorite event at the facility is the annual free shopping spree the residents host for St. James employees.
“Employees can come and ‘shop’ for things that residents have donated that they are no longer able to wear because the water is too hot here and shrinks your clothes,” teased Judie Dunigan, who admitted that St. James food was the reason so many residents “outgrow” their clothes. She also assists with a holiday gift tree for staff members and their families.
Musical residents perform in the community and at St. James Place with the Snazzy Singers, led by Gwen Bruton. They also help each other by arranging bridge games, shuffle board and poker matches, life writing workshops, book club activities, art discussions, Bible study, bingo and domino games, weekly movies, museum trips and pingpong and billiards competitions. Others maintain a camellia garden, collect and deliver pharmaceuticals to St. Vincent de Paul, teach art classes and give computer assistance.
“Residents help each other by picking up and delivering meals to neighbors who are ill, driving to the doctor after hours, running errands, pushing wheelchairs and making themselves available to talk when a friend is sad, lonely or just bored,” Hopper said. “None of us has built a whole house, but each one of us has helped by laying one brick at a time.”