Shepherding Tupelo

National founder to visit for 10th

anniversary of Shepherd's Center

By Michaela Gibson Morris

Daily Journal

Tenth anniversaries may be marked by tin, but the Shepherd's Center of Greater Tupelo shines like a diamond as it completes its first decade.

"I want to make sure they understand the jewel they have in their hand," said Elbert Cole, the director and founder of Shepherd's Centers of America, who will be visiting Tupelo Thursday to help celebrate the 10th anniversary of the local center. "Remind them they're doing something creative with life."

Over the past 10 years, the Shepherd's Center of Greater Tupelo has been offering older adults avenues to stay connected to the community through volunteer activities and educational programs like Adventures in Learning.

"Tupelo has a good history of making meaningful connections with people," Cole said. "I get good reports."

At the center

The centerpiece of the Tupelo Shepherd's Center is a thriving volunteer program of older adults helping older adults.

"We get high marks from them (the national organization) for the services we render," said Bill Carroll, director of the Tupelo center.

In 2000, Shepherd's Center volunteers provided 3,665 services, a 40 percent increase over the previous year, said Marion McCaskill, office coordinator for Shepherd's Center.

Most of the volunteers provide transportation to the doctor's office, grocery store and banks for folks who can no longer drive, said Libby Epting, who joined Shepherd's Center with her husband Ross Epting in 1992.

"The biggest problem for seniors is lack of public transportation," Epting said.

The Shepherd's Center faithful also help out with tasks that can be out of reach like checking pacemakers, changing light bulbs, mowing the lawn or running errands.

Shepherd's Center isn't all work and no play. Each month, members get together for programs at a local church, Carroll said. In the fall and spring, members can participate in organized courses, called Adventures in Learning, that include topics such as current events and traveling conversational Spanish.

The gardening course often sparks a bit of good-natured competition, Carroll said.

"People have contests with tomato growing," he said.

More than a social club or a volunteer organization, Shepherd's Center is the extension of the larger Tupelo church community, said Ron Richardson, the outgoing chairman and one of the people who helped found the Tupelo center in 1991. Currently nine churches in the community sponsor the organization, and others

"It gives our members a way to be involved beyond a single church," Richardson.

Changing attitudes

Shepherd's Center got its start in 1972 in response to cultural forces that were pushing older adults into the margins.

"In the 70s, there was the attitude that older people should lay down and get out of the way," Cole said. "You're nice, but we don't really need you."

Carroll found similar attitudes towards older adults when he first began his career with Methodist Senior Services in the 1960s. A young man asked him "What do you do if the inmates get out?"

Fortunately, public perception of older adults as people who need to be locked away has changed.

At retirement, people often have 20 to 30 years of productive life, Cole said. Instead of retiring, they need to become more involved.

"You need to find something new to wrap your life around," Cole said.

In the next 10 years, the need for Shepherd's Centers will grow exponentially, Carroll said. When the baby boomers begin reaching 65 in 2011, a fifth of the population will be over 65.

"One of the big challenges will be convincing the baby boomers that it's all right to get old," Carroll said.

Cole said he sees a lot of room for the growth of the Shepherd's Centers, which function independently and tailor their own programs to the needs of the community, in Mississippi.

"It's a downright tragedy that there's only one Shepherd's Center in Mississippi," Cole said. "Any town of more than 10,000 can support a Shepherd's Center."

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