JACKSONVILLE As executive director of the Jacksonville Senior Wellness and Activity Center, Christy McMillion is a model of multitasking — planning events, tending schedules and even writing grants.
The only time her day slows down is when she makes the rounds at the center, because in every room and around every corner, someone’s flagging her down to ask a question, wish her a good day or pull her aside to look at the latest pictures of grandkids. If it looks like she’s interacting with cherished family members, it’s because that’s exactly how she describes her view of every person who comes to the center.
“These people are like a big family to me, and I truly love working with them and taking care of them,” she said. “I just stay busy, and I do things. It’s part of my job.”
The award is a humbling gesture, she said, given how much she loves what she does.
McMillion’s commitment to the center, its employees and especially the people it serves has not gone unnoticed in the greater Jacksonville community, either. Recently, the Jacksonville Sertoma Club gave her its Service to Mankind Award.
“I was surprised when they did that, and I’m grateful. I don’t look at what I do in the way that somebody should give me an award for it,” she said.
Barbara Thompson, vice president of Jacksonville Sertoma, is also a volunteer at the center. She said she’s seen firsthand the magic McMillion brings to her role, combining operational efficiency with a caring touch.
“Christy really cares,” Thompson said. “She really cares about what she does and about the people. I was a manager of a nonprofit, so I know what it’s like when you’ve got employees and people coming in who need help. Christy just does everything so well.”
“She really cares about doing the right thing financially and doing the right thing for the people who come in there. She goes out of her way for people. Her door is always open, and I don’t know how she gets anything done because people are in there all the time. Yet she never turns anyone away. I just think she’s terrific.”
Growing up in and marrying into the military, she said, she moved around so much that relationships with her elder relatives was hard to come by, the very relationships that she’s fostered at work.
“I never grew up around my grandparents,” she said. “I haven’t been around them much, so I kind of missed out on that, and my kids have kind of missed out on that as well. At one point, we lived in Guam for two years, and we were so far away from family and friends. That was rough on us.”
“When we got stationed here, I applied for a couple of jobs, and I was offered two: One was in Little Rock, and one was here at this senior center as a bookkeeper. This was a shorter drive, so I decided I would come to work here and not take as much money but spend more time with my family instead of driving back and forth. Little did I know I was going to grow to love these people, too.”
After three years as a bookkeeper, McMillion moved into the executive-director position, a role that cemented her commitment to the success of the center and the overall health and wellness of the people who use its services. And that roster is substantial. McMillion estimates the center hosted nearly 1,000 people last year for one or more of the center’s programs, from art to Zumba.
“We serve a lot of people with all of our programs,” she said. “How we count socialization is basically anybody that comes in here and takes part in any program. Using that formula, we did about 16,000 units of socialization last year.”
The Jacksonville center also served more than 11,000 meals in-house and delivered nearly 48,000 more to the homebound in Sherwood, Jacksonville and north Pulaski County. It’s an area of operations that McMillion describes as nourishing senior’s bodies, minds and spirits.
“There are people who fall through the cracks. They don’t work anymore; maybe they’re on disability. They can’t drive anymore, or they might drive but not far,” she said. “People need social interaction because people thrive off social interaction. You can become a hermit and just don’t eat well; then your health starts to decline.”
McMillion said meals and transportation to and from the center were the centerpiece of operations when she came to work here, and while those factors retain an important function, that alone doesn’t square with the changing demands of seniors.
“We had some activities like quilting, dominoes, cards, but as the baby boomers turned 60 and people were living to an older age, they didn’t want to come here and quilt,” she said. “We had a stigma about us that we had all these old people just sitting around waiting to die. It was just kind of gloom and doom.”
McMillion made it her mission in life to change things. Under her watch, the building was improved and expanded to include a tornado safe room that can hold 400 people, a room that doubles as activity space. She worked tirelessly to change the verbiage used at and about the center in the hopes that it would change public perception, too.
“We used to be called the Jacksonville Elderly Activities Program, JEAP, but we don’t want to use that word, ‘elderly’ anymore, either. We don’t want to separate people based on age,” she said. “We’re trying to get away from that word, ‘senior,’ but it’s hard. People struggle with what to call us.”
McMillion also guided the center’s certification as a wellness center in late 2011. This was more than just semantics for the name, she explains. It certified the center’s programming as satisfying seven dimensions of wellness, including physical, social and spiritual. Today, McMillion and her staff use those dimensions as a benchmark when considering new activities. As a result, the monthly calendar has become crammed with a wide-ranging collection of engaging things to do.
“We have tai chi, and we have Bible study; both of those fall under spiritual wellness,” McMillion said. “We have chair yoga; that’s physical wellness. We’ve had computer classes and classes for the iPad that satisfy intellectual wellness. We also have guest speakers throughout the year to talk about scams, suicide in older adults and depression, and all of these apply to one or more wellness areas.”
McMillion has an eye for the unique when it comes to programming, often trying out things she sees at conferences or in other community centers. That’s how Drums Alive worked its way into the schedule at the center, one of the few senior programs to offer Drums Alive in Arkansas, McMillion said.
“Drums Alive hits on every emotion that anybody has,” she said. “The class is geared to where you can accommodate people of all physical-fitness levels at the same time. People can sit down and drum. They can stand up and do it. They can do only the arm movements if that’s all they’re able to do.”
“Plus, music is used for psychological therapy and mental wellness in people of all ages, from before birth all the way up until the end stage of life.”
Other activities feed seniors’ intellectual side with a practical twist, such as the six- and eight-week class series on fall prevention, diabetes management or healthy cooking. Still other programs provide physical activities with a competitive twist, such as bean-bag baseball and chair volleyball teams that compete intramurally and occasionally against outside competitors.
Tanya Kopp, the center’s activities director since August, said McMillion’s willingness to give new things a try is just one facet of her effectiveness as a leader.
“She is someone who takes control and does as much as she can,” Kopp said. “If there’s something that needs to be done, she does it, and it doesn’t matter if it’s in the kitchen, if it’s janitorial, if it’s activities. If it’s helping somebody, she’s always more than willing to do it, which isn’t something you’ll get from every boss that you have.”
“Her job is not the easiest job in the building,” said Susan Weaver, bookkeeper. “We have trips that the seniors go on. Last year they went to Maine; the year before they went to South Dakota. She goes on those trips, but not just to go have a trip; she’s coordinating the trip. She’s making sure that everything goes smoothly, that every piece of that puzzle is completed.”
As for the future, McMillion said, she wants to reach people earlier to help establish habits that head off problems that previous generations experienced in their golden years.
“Our target age has always been 60 or older. We’ve changed that to 50 or older now,” she said. “Getting them engaged at an earlier age, they can better know and understand the importance of wellness. We don’t want them to be homebound; we want them to get engaged before they come to that point. Statistics have proved if they stay engaged and stay active, then they’ll be physically active longer in life. That’s good for everybody — the person, their family and the community.”