Each year, the Association of Illinois Senior Centers recognizes one senior center that demonstrates an outstanding commitment to helping seniors maintain and improve their mental, physical and emotional health.

This year, Ela Township’s “55 Plus” program received the association’s highest honor, the “Mind, Body and Spirit” award.

Susan Dillon, Director of Adult and Senior Services for Ela Township, accepted the prestigious award at the association’s 2016 conference in Joliet last month on behalf of her dedicated staff, which includes Connie Bellio, Jim Dalbec, Lisa Gaggiano, Lynn Neumaier, Kim Piers and Laura Zickuhr.

“I always knew that our senior center was exceptional and Susan Dillon has done nothing but increased all our programs and made them the top in the state. Ela Township is so proud to have this honor,” Supervisor Lucy A. Prouty said.

The Ela Township Community Center in Lake Zurich, which houses the Ela 55 Plus program in addition to youth programs, opened just four years ago in the former post office building. Prior to that, the township operated a one-room community center at the Foglia YMCA.

In the past five years Dillon has served as director, Ela 55 Plus has grown exponentially in relation to services, programs and membership. The inclusive program truly embodies the mind, body and spirit philosophy.

Ela 55 Plus offers health and wellness programs, educational classes, recreational activities, special events, men’s only programming, lunch cooked on-site, day and long distance trips, a salon/barber shop and so much more. The staff also includes a senior resource specialist and a registered dietician/nutritionist.

“None of this would be possible if I did not have the support of the Ela Township Board,” Dillon said. “They have really given me my wings. I have yet to hear them say ‘Nah, that’s not such a good idea, let’s pull back.’ We’re changing the face of what a senior center looks like, not just from a staff standpoint but a membership standpoint. I’ve had situations where I’ve had to say, sorry, you can’t join, you’re not 55 yet!”

Tracey Colagrossi, president of the Association of Illinois Senior Centers, presents Ela 55 Plus Director Susan Dillon with the Mind, Body and Spirit Award. Photo Credit: Association of Illinois Senior Centers

Tracey Colagrossi, president of the Association of Illinois Senior Centers, presents Ela 55 Plus Director Susan Dillon with the Mind, Body and Spirit Award. Photo Credit: Association of Illinois Senior Centers

Tracey Colagrassi, President of the Association of Illinois Senior Centers stated, “What the township and the program has done for the residents in and around this area in such a short time has been remarkable. That’s giving credit to Susan and the staff in the development of the program and how they take the feedback of the participants to heart. That’s the element of a good, holistic program and that’s what mind, body and spirit truly is.”

“They’re addressing the needs of residents holistically through enrichment, lifelong learning and nutrition. Because they’ve been so innovative in such a short period of time, that’s why we wanted to award them,” she continued.

These are my peeps!

Dillon has always identified with seniors and enjoys talking with them about their lives, catching up on their families and learning their histories. “These are my peeps!” she said.

“When I was a kid, I grew up in the city, and we were on a street that had a bunch of elderly couples. Every day I was playing cards with Mr. Callahan or sitting on Mrs. Kay’s front porch because she baked unbelievable Polish things. When I went to college I lived in my grandma’s apartment building, which was all seniors. It was a hoot. My parents were pretty comfortable because they knew there were eyes on me day and night. My grandma was an absolute riot, very active. She was quite a role model.”

The senior center’s cheerleader, Dillon encourages members to try something new and not be afraid to look silly. “It’s a fun dynamic,” she said. They know they’re in a safe environment and I am the first to laugh at myself. I will laugh first and I will laugh loudest.”

When it comes to potential members who may have recently moved in with their adult children and are new to the area or have never experienced the strong network of friendship and support Ela 55 Plus offers, Dillon is the first to invite them into the fold and make them feel like family.

“If we just get them in for one thing, we’ve got them,” she said. “They’re hooked and we know we’ll be seeing a lot of them. When they finally make the plunge, then we see them every day.”

Ela Township seniors enjoy a fitness class at the senior center.

Ela Township seniors enjoy a fitness class at the community center.

Senior Howard Parker said he and his wife love Ela 55 Plus because there are activities they can do together and separately, such as the men’s only “Real Men of Genius” social hour on Friday mornings.

“It’s nice to just get out of the house and meet a different circle of people,” he said. “My wife and I both enjoy the exercise classes and the trips are great.”

Senior Diane English, who regularly participates in the center’s fitness classes. lunches and trips, tears up when talking about the staff. “They rock! The personnel is attuned to everything. They really know you and you learn so much about them. They’re not just employees, they’re your friends.”

Stellar staff

The multigenerational staff members of Ela 55 Plus are beloved by the seniors, Dillon said. Her right hand man Jim Dalbec, who teaches classes, leads the men’s only discussion group and is the go-to techie, is like class president around the center.

“One of our members said, ’I don’t know what made you think to bring a young guy (Dalbec is 30) into this place, but it is phenomenal.’ The guys want to be his best friend and the ladies all love him. Just seeing him around brings back so many memories of when they were starting out.”

I think Jim is a great asset to the center,” Parker said. “Before he came, I think it was dominated by the fairer sex and now there’s a good group of guys here.”

Every day at the center is different for Dalbec, who joined the staff in 2003.

Ela 55 Plus staff member Jim Dalbec is the "young man" on campus, leading a men's discussion group.

Ela 55 Plus staff member Jim Dalbec is the “young man” on campus, leading a men’s discussion group.

“I have friends who’ll ask me what I do and it’s really tough to sum up. It’s so hands-on. It’s the relationships, it’s the people. Without people coming in to the building there’s nothing for us to do, there’s no senior center. We get to know everyone. We all have an idea of what’s going on in each other’s lives, even if it’s meeting for an hour on Friday or having breakfast. The relationships are what makes this place what it is,” he said.

Senior Resource Specialist Lisa Gaggiano, who has been on staff for over nine years, assists seniors with everything from figuring out Medicare and transportation to providing referrals for assisted living and dementia support.

“Lisa is a wealth of information and help,” Dillon said. “Every week someone will come into my office and say ‘I can’t believe what she’s done for us.’ She’s had a huge impact not only on this center but on the community. I hear this every day about one of our staff members.”

Fitness Coordinator Kim Piers has been with Ela 55 Plus for 15 years, having started out as a volunteer when the center operated out of the YMCA.

Ela 55 Plus Fitness Coordinator Kim Piers talks with Director Susan Dillon about upcoming programs at the senior center.

Ela 55 Plus Fitness Coordinator Kim Piers talks with Director Susan Dillon about upcoming programs at the senior center.

“It’s the most rewarding thing I can do, to have everyone come up to me and tell me how much stronger they feel. They can sit up better, get up out of a chair better, walk longer.”

Piers credits Dillon with making the center a wonderful environment for seniors. “Everybody wants to be here,” she said.

In addition to the dedicated staff, Dillon said their spouses and families are also very involved in the senior center, whether it’s supporting their chaotic schedules or volunteering to help at events, trips and programs.

“They definitely have played a key support role for Ela 55 Plus.”

If you’re an Ela Township resident 55 or older, stop by the community center at 380 Surryse Road, in Lake Zurich, and see what Ela 55 Plus is all about! Learn more at www.elatownship.org/seniors or call (847) 438-9160.