The Golden Years
It is a Wednesday; late morning and the time is 10:00 a.m. Members have started to gather in The Golden Years Society and get right to work, setting up various chairs and tables for the rush that is to come. There is an unmistakable warmth to the building and it’s not just from the late morning sun that dances its way through the windows.
In the air is the distinct scent of beef cooking, maybe a stew. There is a chef working away in the kitchen with some helpers, quickly preparing for the weekly luncheon that is about to ensue. I am greeted by Vice President of The Golden Years Society, Ken Saunderson, who gives me a quick tour of the facility downtown Fort McMurray.
As we walk through the building I am shown everything from the craft room to the lunch room, all the way back to the little shop at the front where members knit and crochet items for fundraising. “The casinos are our biggest fundraisers, but we also have a craft store where we sell items. We’re busy year-round raising money,” says Ken.
The Golden Years Society is a non-profit organization that was established in 1976 with the main purpose to promote wellness to all seniors in the region. According to The Golden Years Society website, it achieves this with weekly luncheons, bocce ball, bowling, arts and crafts, and many more activities. Initially, in 1992, people gathered in a building in Heritage Park. Once they outgrew that facility they started to look at ways to build a new center. With some financial help from the Municipality and a lot of fundraising the dream morphed into a reality.
Germain Routhier, now 90-years-old, helped facilitate and gather funds to construct the current building. “At first we went to Edmonton to look into this company that could build us a log structure. They wanted $10,000 before they started, so we put a deposit down. Then, three to four months later they said they would need another $20,000. Would you believe it, two weeks later they had gone broke and all our money we raised was gone.”
At the time, Germain felt angry, lost, and defeated. All the money which The Golden Years Society had worked so hard to raise was gone. Germain recalls the Mayor at that time, Betty Collicott, phoning him up to express her feelings on the situation. “She said, ‘Germain you can’t let go of the plans to build this, you have to keep going. Let’s go for it and I’ll do everything I can to help you with this.’”
“So, we started all over again, and by the love of God and with the help of the city, we finally got the show on the road. It was like a weight had been lifted off of me,” Germain exclaims with a warm smile.
After many years of fundraising, the board finally broke ground on May 10, 1992 at the location in downtown Fort McMurray. “All in all, everyone enjoys this place, and it gives me a lift to see this because I know all that hard work at the beginning was not done for nothing.”
Fast forward to present day and there are roughly 300 members who take advantage of the facility. Smiling even bigger than before, Germain seems excited about the luncheon that’s to come. “You should see the friendship that everyone has with one another. It gets to the point where members have their certain tables they like to sit at every week, like high school.”
Ken recalls how Wednesday luncheons used to be five years ago. “We used to have our weekly potluck with 40 to 65 people. Shortly thereafter, our numbers increased to around 100. We applied through the United Way for funding to offer a weekly hot meal, amongst other things.”
The Golden Years Society was granted that funding and they now enjoy a hot luncheon every Wednesday. The money goes towards paying the chef who works part time. “The chef is great, he even does the cleaning up at the end which is important. We get anywhere to 80 to 130 people showing up, and you can tell they enjoy the efforts.”
The United Way funding also helps to provide part time cleaners for the building. “We have one full time coordinator that is here during the week. We really need her to keep things running smoothly and keep the doors open for us.”
Ken explains why he thinks the number of members will continue to grow. “Fort McMurray is a little behind the times, especially with our seniors. Most people came here to work in the oil sands back in the day with the plan of leaving once they retired.”
It’s no secret that the senior population is on the rise with more people staying here to work and raise a family. “Because people are staying here with their families, their parents and grandparents are moving here to spend more family time together.”
Senior Vivian McNeilly who became a member in 1996 when she retired notices the increase in membership. “Right now there is quite a few people that use our senior center. It’s nice to meet all the new seniors coming into town, and they just love coming here because there’s so much to do.”
For our community, The Golden Years society is a facility where people can have fun and communicate. Vivian feels the society is a vital cog in the mental health of Wood Buffalo seniors. “My husband has passed away, and although I have family here, I am by myself. It’s nice to come to the center and play cards and have fun days with others who are much more than friends now, they’re like family.”
Ken says there are still changes that will need to be made. “I can see a need in the near future for a facility to be built on the other side of the Athabasca river, maybe in Thickwood or Timberlea.”
With there being over 300 members, the building is simply not big enough to hold everyone if they were all to show up. “I would say we would probably keep this building and build an activity center so we would have two locations.”
February 20, 2018 marked the 25th anniversary of the new facility. The society recognized this milestone with a celebration which was held on March 10th.
It is almost 11:30 AM and members are streaming into the building, busy with the thought of lunch. Conversation and laughter are prominent outside the room in which I am holding the interview. Looking at my last interviewee, Germain, I am satisfied with our conversation and I realize it is coming to a close. I observe a confident, content man who has lived his best life.
I question Germain on whether it feels like it’s been 25 years. With a soft, kind response he reflects and says, “Not really.” I see his memories flash behind his eyes as if a video reel of 25 years is playing from start to finish in a matter of a second.
I leave the interview feeling emotionally full from the conversations I have had. With my departure, I truly understand why people hold this building in such high standings. It is a place of friendship, memories, and most importantly, love. A place of hope, something to look forward to each week.
To join The Golden Years Society, membership is $15 for the year and is open to those 55 years plus. For more information call (780) 743-4088 or visit goldenyearssociety.ca.