Bernadette Whitsett-Hammond, recently retired from her position as a school psychologist for Charlottesville City Schools, knew that in this next chapter of life she wanted to continue to learn, grow, and remain healthy in an inclusive environment. When she walked into The Center at Belvedere this past spring, she knew she had found the place to do just that! Bernadette was familiar with The Center’s previous location on Hillsdale Drive, so was amazed and impressed by its new home with a spacious, light-filled atrium, and by the warm welcome she received from Center staff and volunteers. One of the classes she signed up for was Tai Chi. “I feel a spiritual connection with it,” Bernadette says, “and I find great comfort in being around people my age with no pressure to compete or perform.”
Reverend Mildred Best also wanted to remain active after retiring last year from her position as director of the Chaplaincy Department at UVA Health Systems. Like Bernadette, Mildred was immediately impressed by the state-of-the-art facility with spaces that are beautiful, functional, and thoughtfully designed—and by the array of programs available. Noticing her flexibility during a stretching class, a participant suggested to Mildred that she take ballet, something she had never dreamed of doing. She is now enrolled in The Center’s Silver Swans beginner class and says, “I’m loving it, but NO TUTU!”
So, while the building and its amenities are striking, the main attraction for people who join The Center is truly the breadth and depth of the program offerings. The organization creates a variety of opportunities for older adults to maintain and improve their intellectual health, and to connect with others for social support, emotional wellness, and fun. The wide array of educational and social opportunities as well as support in important practical life skills are what keep members involved at The Center on a regular basis. Scroll through The Center’s website (thecentercville.org) and you’ll find talks on history and travel, classes on art and gardening, and sessions on rhythm, line, and square dancing. You’ll see opportunities to learn and play games such as bridge, American mah-jongg and backgammon; join support groups for caregivers of those afflicted with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s diseases; and attend meetings on elder law, hearing health, and Medicare. The list of activities is endless. Then, following all this learning, exercise, and fun, relax at Greenberry’s, located in the atrium, and enjoy a cup of coffee, a breakfast sandwich, a tasty smoothie, bottle of beer, glass of wine, or a variety of other tasty treats.
“The Center is a saving grace for me because it offers so much, and I’ve met so many very, very nice people,” says Robert Meadows, a retired industrial arts teacher. Robert discovered his great love for music in his later years. Now retired from The Center’s First-Wind Band, he says “Participating in activities at The Center always makes me think I can do more. We are better students now than when we were younger. More patient.”
The warm, inviting culture that Bernadette, Mildred, and Robert experience at The Center was not always what everyone encountered. After a 2018 in-house assessment of membership, programs, and activities, The Center learned painful truths: people of color did not feel welcome in the space and attempts to invite them in were found wanting—creating mistrust. There was a palpable absence of black and brown faces among staff, members, and volunteers and a lack of urgency on the part of Center leadership regarding issues of importance to our community. Confronting these truths led Center leadership to shine a spotlight on its organizational practices. Executive Director Peter Thompson stated, “The Center at Belvedere is a resource for everyone, not just an insulated segment of our community. As an organization and as individuals, we are dedicated to taking a practical, working role in fighting racism and advocating for a truly just and equitable society.” The result? An existing committee was expanded in purpose and scope to form the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee (DEIC); a Board-appointed Racial Equity Task Force was assembled to create a Racial Equity Action Plan that is embedded in a strategic plan recently created with help from a consulting firm; and the organization has undertaken work at all levels to improve performance in the areas of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
With DEI as a core value of The Center, staff and volunteer training has begun and a myriad of programs have been presented to the Charlottesville/Albemarle community on a wide range of social issues, beginning with the speaker series initiated in 2018. Two editions of “Building a More Inclusive Community: Local Voices on Diversity” have focused on Black and brown communities, one last fall addressed Indigenous Americans. Charlottesville native Frank Walker’s artwork was introduced to The Center in May 2021; his work The African Violin is now on display at the top of the Grand Stairway, the first of a permanent collection promoting The Center’s mission to provide opportunities to explore creativity through the visual and performing arts. Books written by African and Native American authors have enriched the Center’s library. The African American Authors Book Club regularly meets at The Center on the second Thursday each month at 6:00 pm. Allyships are being pursued with members of the LatinX community. A wonderful dance party with Soul Expressions, a Richmond-based soul and rock band, drew a diverse crowd of nearly 200 people for an unforgettable night of fun. Portrayals of Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman drew enthusiastic audiences during Black History Month, as did a discussion with Margot Shetterly, author of “Hidden Figures,” following a showing of the movie based on her book. Programs focusing on the LGBTQ community are underway, and a series of professionally facilitated small group discussions on the discrimination various groups in our community experience is in development. And so much more! The Center at Belvedere is acknowledging, learning about, and sharing information regarding our community’s history of racial and social injustice and inequity to make things better for all.
In the words of Friazeal Bennett, a very active member of The Center, “At a certain point in life you either go for it, or you don’t..” Frizz is definitely “going for it” through almost daily activities at The Center. “Just milling around the Center before and after my classes, I find everyone so friendly, inviting me to participate in something, or saying ‘Ok … next time’, if I have another commitment.”
So, how can you get involved at The Center?
Many programs are free and open to everyone; others require membership. Standard membership, which provides access to about 80% of the programs, is $180 a year ($15/month) for an individual or $324 a year for a household. (Household is defined as two persons living at the same address, one of whom is age 50+). For the 20% of classes that require a paid instructor, program fees may apply, or there is an all-inclusive Prime membership option at $40 per month. For anyone who finds membership beyond their means, The Center has always offered scholarships on a no-questions-asked basis to those who express a need. The Center’s mission is “to create opportunities for healthy aging” for all, and the ability to pay should never be an impediment. A scholarship fund established in 2015 to honor educator, volunteer leader, and long-time Center member and Board president Mary Reese provided 205 individuals with memberships and/or support for program fees in 2021.
We invite YOU to call or visit The Center, arrange a tour, and begin the next chapter of YOUR life.
The Center at Belvedere
540 Belvedere Boulevard
Charlottesville, VA 22901
Enid Krieger is Chairman of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee at The Center at Belvedere. A retired health care executive, Enid has been a resident of Charlottesville for 23 years. She has provided leadership in a variety of ways to benefit the community, for which she was named one of the Daily Progress’ Distinguished Dozen in 2018.