WESTBROOK – If there were enough room to set up a bed in the Fiber Arts room at the Westbrook Community Center, Rita Estabrook probably would never leave.
Estabrook is part of a growing number of senior citizens who spend the bulk of their time at the community center, located on Bridge Street in the Fred C. Wescott Building, either working, teaching, volunteering, or just having a good time.
“It’s really the best thing to happen here,” Estabrook said. “If they’d let me put a bunk in here, I’d stay overnight. The only day I’m not here is on Sunday because no one’s here. If other people were here, I’d be here then, too.”
On Tuesday, a few of the dozen or so women who spend their free time in the Fiber Arts room, a crafting center, showed off their designs during a fashion show for the Southern Maine Agency on Aging luncheon, held once a month at the center and open to the public.
Joanne McPhee, the nutritional manager for the agency on aging, agreed the center does a lot for the aging community.
“Some people sit and watch soaps all day. That’s very bad. You have to remain active,” she said.
McPhee helps with the Meals on Wheels programs for Westbrook and Portland, both of which run out of the community center and use many senior volunteers.
Jane Hebert was one of the models in the fashion show, showing off a shawl she had woven on the center’s loom, while Estabrook wore a repurposed sweatshirt made by cutting the fabric down the middle and adding swatches along the new seam and for decoration over the back and sleeves.
“You know when you eat and you’re dropping food on you and there are spots all over the place? Now, who knows there are spots underneath?” said Estabrook, modeling her new attire.
Most days in the Fiber Arts room, at least one woman is behind a sewing machine, while others are seated at the tables making beads or knitting baby clothing, crocheting quilts, cutting fabric for pillows and even washing out sheep’s wool to be used on the loom.
A ceramics kiln is also available for use, but so far the women haven’t done much with it because of the mess.
“You learn from each other,” Estabrook said about the diverse craft skills the women have acquired.
Some of their items are sold and that money is used to buy more supplies for the room. Other items, like many of their quilts, are donated to Maine Medical Center and the Springbrook Center nursing home.
When Hebert’s not working on her own projects, she teaches a small class with Estabrook and whoever else is in the art room at the time for the alternative learning class at the Westbrook Middle School. Once a week, students come in to work on different art projects. Sometimes Hebert and Estabrook show them different projects and sometimes the kids teach them. On Monday, Hebert learned how to make a wallet out of duck tape from the students, which she proudly showed off during the fashion show.
The women also teach classes to anyone who wants to learn. In fact, the popularity of the craft classes has become so high that Hebert said eventually they’ll have to come up with a shift system so everyone can get their own work done.
A few years ago, Hebert and Estabrook didn’t know one another’s name. They could recognize each other in the Davan pool, also at the community center, but once they got out of the water, they went on their separate ways.
That all changed when Hebert joined the Re-Use Committee to study the redevelopment of the old Wescott Junior High School, which was emptied after the new middle school opened.
Hebert recalls a conversation she had with the then-recently elected mayor, Colleen Hilton.
“She asked if we’d gone to visit any other community centers. And no, we hadn’t,” Hebert said. “But it turned out OK. It grew out of what we wanted. Organically.”
When the community center officially opened in 2010, the women were back in the pool doing an aerobics class, but now, instead of leaving right away, they had a chance to do other activities together and get to know one another.
“This is bringing the community of Westbrook together. People I know are getting out more than ever before. When they started the exercise class, there was a dozen or so people. Now there’s more than 40. The same thing with the swimming,” Estabrook said.
Now they have water aerobics, chair yoga, senior arts classes, the community garden, the café to get coffee or a bite to eat at lunch – Estabrook said the smells from the Starlite Café give her cravings – volunteer opportunities at the food pantry, Meals on Wheels and the thrift store, visits to the historical society, luncheons with the Southern Maine Agency on Aging, and other groups. There are more than enough activities to keep retirees busier than they ever expected.
“They go to senior swims in the morning and meet up at about 7:30. There’s a large group of them,” said Maria Dorn, director of community services. “Then they go up to the café for coffee and a muffin. On Wednesday they’re in the Fiber Arts room, on Tuesday a group volunteers at the store and food pantry. There’s so much going on, it’s hard to keep track.”
Before the center opened, Dorn said, other than church gatherings, there wasn’t another centralized location for seniors to just hang out together.
“I really don’t think there was much before this,” she said. “Here is definitely more of a hub. A lot of programs exist here because seniors voiced wanting to include them.”
Dorn said in 20 years, she can see herself and her friends spending their free time doing the same activities and programs the seniors like Estabrook and Hebert are building up now.
“It’s a testament of the community to be able to see beyond it just being used as a place for kids. It’s multi-generational,” Dorn said.
And the community center isn’t done growing. As space becomes available, new programs will move in. Input from residents on what they want to see offered at the center is always welcome. For now though, the Fiber Arts room is the central nervous system of the center, growing larger every day with additional people and projects.
“If we could give them another community center, they’d fill it up,” Dorn said.