By Emily Steele

A group of friends gathered around Denise Downing’s kitchen table to discuss her recent experiences volunteering in the Upper Keys in 2017. They quickly came to the conclusion that the community lacked the resources needed for people elderly.

What followed was an evening of “wild” brainstorming, moving from the needs of seniors to the idea of ​​creating a dynamic community center that would meet the needs of all citizens. Immersed in the moment, they asked themselves, “Why does this matter?

The responses that surfaced were strikingly similar across all ages: relieve isolation; build strength, balance and endurance; improve memory and retention; provide lifelong learning opportunities; a safe place to gather and develop community contacts, to name a few.

From this first meeting grew community meetings, held in various locations, to discuss the idea of ​​a vibrant community center to serve multiple age groups. The first public meeting was held at the existing senior center; monthly meetings were held in the conference room of the sheriff’s office; the latter at the Key Largo Library. The meetings were well attended, with the majority agreeing that the Upper Keys would benefit greatly from the establishment of a community center. An advisory board was formed from volunteers who came forward.

The new advisory board received funding from two major donors, Mimi Geek and Susan Ruck, to implement a pilot program and applied for incorporation as Just Older Youth (JOY) Inc. The pilot program ran from January to April 2018 at the Pearl House of Worship. on Pearl Street in Tavernier. The full day pilot was open on Wednesdays and offered lessons.

JOY community

For example, a yoga class would take place in one room and a technology class in another. The venue included speakers, live performances and films. Publix provided pastries for a continental breakfast and Starbucks in Key Largo donated coffee and donuts. Programs were decided based on suggestions from public forums, participant choices and feedback. The programs were run by volunteers, artists, historians, scientists, and other citizens who could teach others.

The pilot project was a success, confirming the benefits of the program for participants. The organization was incorporated as Just Older Youth (JOY) Inc. and became a Florida-registered nonprofit on May 5, 2018. Now the grassroots movement was beginning to take a stronger form and could apply for public subsidies.

With the help of dedicated volunteer board members, instructors and generous donors, Just Older Youth Inc. has maintained the JOY Center programs for four years. They survived Hurricane Irma, multiple moves and COVID-19, while simultaneously reaching out to community leaders and applying for grants to acquire a venue and funds to create a thriving community center that could relieve health services. overloaded, increase job performance and retain residents by promoting wellness. , happiness and contentment. At that moment, they feel that they are close to achieving their goal.

The JOY Center offers dynamic programs and lifelong learning experiences for people over 50 every Wednesday, both virtual and onsite. This bi-weekly column will feature the many dedicated individuals working to achieve this goal.
For more information contact [email protected].