Seniors hit the ‘Trail’

June 3, 2015, is circled on nearly 1,000 calendars in Franklin County, Mo., to remind many residents of nursing homes, assisted living communities and retirement centers that they have a reservation for a party. Although some call the annual Riverfront Trail Day in Washington, Mo., a picnic, others say it’s a field trip. Whatever it’s called, it is an unusual, free and fun event for older Americans at the city’s fairgrounds.

Since the first Trail Day debuted in 2004, Barb Hellmann and Sharon Monzyk have co-chaired the event. It began as an experiment. A dozen years ago, a scenic, wooded two-mile walking trail was constructed along the Missouri River in Washington. Hellmann’s parents, who had bad knees, told her they’d never be able to walk on the trail. For months, Hellman wondered how she could make the trail accessible to her parents who, like millions of other older adults, were becoming bystanders in their own town.

“I knew the trail had been partially funded by the Washington Rotary Club,” Hellmann recalled. “I was a member of another service group, but wondered if Rotary would listen to my idea a tram ride for older people along the riverfront walking trail.”

Trail Day then…

Monzyk, president of the Washington Rotary Club, listened. Intrigued, she easily persuaded about 20 club members to volunteer. Rotary ran a small ad in the city newspaper and borrowed a tram from the local fairgrounds. The city provided a tractor, a driver and insurance. A local grocer donated coffee.

The first Riverfront Trail Day, held on a chilly October morning in 2004, attracted a few dozen people, but those who attended loved the experience. “My aunt said we had to do it again, but we should add cookies,” remembered Hellmann. So in 2005, cookies were added, and formal invitations were sent to area long-term care facilities and retirement centers. Bingo and lunch were added to the day’s programming in 2006. Older citizens, and disabled persons of any age, are welcome to attend if they live in Franklin County, which is about an hour’s drive west of St. Louis.

…and now

Attendance has grown each year. Last year, 1,000 attendees and 140 volunteers celebrated the 10th anniversary of Riverfront Trail Day. Guests arrive on the first Wednesday in June, many of them relying on wheelchairs, canes, walkers or oxygen tanks. They play bingo, socialize, eat lunch and ride the trams. Everything is free.

Although the “Greatest Generation” is dwindling in numbers, Hellmann and Monzyk never forget to honor the military veterans that attend Trail Day. A few years ago, the co-chairs halted bingo for a very brief program. A vocalist sang the national anthem followed by a prayer and a military salute by the local VFW and American Legion. The patriotic tradition has continued, and each year, a few veterans slowly rise from their wheelchairs to salute the flag.

“What I’ve noticed since the beginning,” said longtime Rotarian Dr. Sam Farrell,“is that these people miss their buddies. Some of them can’t visit their friends because of mobility issues or lack of transportation. Some of them lived in a retirement home and now live in a nursing home. On Trail Day, they see their friends. This event has become a reunion.”

Residents from about 30 facilities throughout the county are attend the event.

A day away for LTC residents

Cedar Crest Manor in Washington typically brings about 40 residents to Trail Day. “The youngest person who attended was 45 years old,” said Activity Director Cathy Hagan, “and several residents over 100 years old have also attended. The food is a highlight for many of them. They are often cautious about spending their money, so they appreciate the free food—snacks, hamburgers, ice cream, cookies and fresh strawberries.”

Dee Coppeans, volunteer coordinator of Heartland Hospice in Washington, encourages certain hospice patients to attend. “We do have patients who enjoy this event, especially the narrated tram ride. I like the fact that Barb and Sharon provide a [certified medical assistant] on each tram.”

Hellmann and Monzyk have received dozens of thank-you letters from guests. Their favorite? The letter a person wrote that said Trail Day “is better than Christmas.”

A community effort

An event that competes with Christmas requires monumental preparations. The weather can’t be too hot or too cold. Eighty degrees with low humidity is the ideal temperature. The co-chairs continually update their operations manual, which stresses the importance of personal safety for the guests. There has not been a single accident in 10 years. Volunteers are carefully selected, and their ages cover a broad span, including high school students. When longtime volunteer Charlie Frazier, 88, realized he would not be able to assist tram riders who substantially outweigh him, he cheerfully accepted a different volunteer assignment.

The Washington Rotary Club considers Riverfront Trail Day the jewel of its community service programs. “Trail Day is not an evening event, and it’s not on the weekend, either,” noted Rotarian Rebecca Guzy, who’s chaired the food service committee for three years. “Many Rotarians take the day off from work because we see how much this event means to the seniors.”

On Trail Day, Chuck Marquart starts grilling at 7:30 a.m., supervising a volunteer crew that will prepare 1,500 pieces of meat. Guzy and her volunteers serve the food over a four-hour period, bus tables and help with clean-up. Dennis Kramme—“Mr. Bingo” to some—is highly visible all day as he calls the games.

Keeping seniors engaged

The Washington Rotary Club now budgets $5,000 annually for the event. Others donating funds or providing volunteers or services for Riverfront Trail Day are Washington’s Parks and Recreation Department, the Washington Police Department, Washington Ambulance, the Chamber of Commerce, the VFW, the American Legion, two local high schools and many businesses and individuals.

Before moving to the village of Labadie in Franklin County, Alvin and Jean Meyer had lived in a St. Louis suburb for 30 years. They shopped in Washington and used the hospital but explored little of the town. On a lark, they signed up for the tram ride years ago. “We learned so much about the area,” recalled Jean. “We go every year now. It’s a wonderful social event.”

Dean Blackwell, an Army veteran who attended with his wife last year, gives Riverfront Trail Day the ultimate compliment. “I wish they’d have this event two times a month.”

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