Mary Jo Trumbly turned up at the elder nutrition site on Valentine’s Day without a hat, despite the fact that it was “Fancy Hat Day” with a side of bingo.
She was just there to eat, along with her son, Liberty Metcalf, and a substantial crowd of other people, mostly but not all elders.
“We had chili the other day that was just the best ever,” Trumbly said. “And the soup is excellent.
“People keep coming back. On meatloaf days, you can barely get in here. It’s packed.”
Since the WahZhaZhe Health Center folded elder nutrition into its duties in the fall, change has been afoot at Title VI: The site has a new director, Amy Dobbins, and it has had a nutritionist revamp the menu to include higher-quality meats, fresh fruits and healthier fare, it sends food packs home with seniors for weekends, and it has introduced more activities like bingo, puzzles, shopping outings, and the aforementioned Fancy Hat Day.
“I like everything but the rice,” summed up Trumbly.
“I’m happy. I’m Osage. As long as I eat, I’m happy.”
Mark Rogers, the chief executive over the clinic who was hired six months ago, has been the mastermind of the new direction at Title VI, a path set in motion by Rick Richards, the former CEO of Cherokee Nation Home Health and Elderhaus, the latter being a non-profit based in Wilmington, N.C.
Richards consulted for the Nation on building an assisted living facility, and during the course of that work suggested that Title VI could take a more active role in the lives of its seniors beyond feeding them lunch. He pointed to some of the pueblos of New Mexico, which offer seniors the opportunity to engage in arts and other hobbies.
Dobbins has been introducing change incrementally but credits her staff with taking a grain of an idea and making it work.
“This staff is amazing,” Dobbins said. “I can take a little tiny idea but they’re the ones who make it work.
“The first and foremost goal is to get the best meal out to our elders. Next would be socialization. Some people have big support groups but for others, this is their support group.”
Between Fairfax and Pawhuska, about 400 people a day eat Title VI meals, either in the dining hall from 11:30-12:30 Monday-Friday, to-go from 11-12:30, or delivered to their homes. (The site is open from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. to hang out and visit, drink coffee and so forth.)
The number of clients has been growing steadily as changes are introduced and word spreads.
Anyone, regardless of age or ethnicity, can eat at Title VI: Native Americans over 55 and their spouses are encouraged to donate $2 for their meals if they can afford it, and others are charged $6 each. Dobbins wanted to make it abundantly clear that Natives who don’t have $2 are welcome to eat there anyway: The goal is to feed elders, not to make money.
“In the past, there have been Osages who were denied entry because they didn’t have $2,” Dobbins said. “If you have $2, that’s great. If you don’t, just sign in and we’ll get you a meal.”
Weekend food packs: Some had been going hungry
As Trumbly had alluded the number of people who turn up every day is driven by the menu.
“Last week, we served tilapia and it was crickets in here,” Dobbins said. Soup, on the other hand, is a big draw: On Feb. 17, the site served taco soup with fixings – tortilla chips, cheese, sour cream – and offered pretzel dogs as well as the usual substantial salad bar, fresh fruit and frozen yogurt.
Since it was Friday, seniors were also given a loaf of wheat bread and a sack stuffed with fruit, yogurt, string cheese and other goodies for the weekend – a new offering that came about because some elders were going hungry on Saturday and Sunday when Title VI is closed.
Instead of catering to a wide variety of dietary restrictions, Dobbins said the site is trying to offer a variety of menu choice so folks can choose what works best for them.
But, she said, she’s moving slowly.
“A big recipe for failure is too much change, too fast,” she said. “Our clients like the little changes but it not so much that they go ‘What?!’”
Dobbins worked for Human Resources when she was moved to Title VI, and she previously worked for the Housing Department for many years.
“They literally called me in on a Tuesday and said, ‘You’ll start there tomorrow,’” she said.
Dobbins, whose mother, Laura Dobbins, has run the non-Native Title III nutrition site in Hominy for 50 years, jumped right in.
“I have a heart to serve,” Amy Dobbins said. “I’m actually happy to come to work. It’s like ‘Alright! Let’s make a difference today.’”
Ideas from anywhere and everyone
Dobbins said she is always keen to hear ideas for change. The Fancy Hat Day, for instance, was inspired by Florence Bigheart Tranum, who brought in a hatbox one day containing a wild feathered French hat that she bought at Nieman Marcus back in the day when such toppers were the height of fashion (and Tranum’s Dana Marté chapeau is certainly at the pinnacle of vogue).
“I wear it just to wake people up,” Tranum said, wearing the hat with feathers bouncing on thin wires, and an equally chic red dress she also bought at Neiman Marcus.
“And so, Fancy Hat day was born,” Dobbins said. “We are going to do little things like that.”
Monica Cheshewalla passed through to pick up a to-go meal, and fell into conversation with Dobbins. She had an idea: Take elders to the indoor swimming pool that Pawhuska has for some low-impact exercise. Excellent idea, Dobbins responded, promising to look into that.
Bingo, soap, music and laughs
Hat day fell on Valentine’s Day, and elders stayed after brunch for a spirited bingo game. Tranum won the first round, but Julia Wilson brought down the house when she went to pick a prize. “This is what I need,” she declared: “Energizing body soap!”
After site coordinator Shelly Kennedy called out a few more numbers, Elizabeth Moncravie piped up: “Bingo!”
Moncravie chose a slightly more practical prize – Tide laundry detergent – which she displayed with so much aplomb that we suspect she’s been hawking things on QVC her entire life.
Bingo is popular but elders have also enjoyed a shopping excursion to Owasso in December and a field trip to the Tulsa State Fair in October.
Dobbins is now brainstorming ideas for St. Patrick’s Day but notes that trips are a “balancing act” because the site currently has to close for such outings. Next week, the site will start checking elders’ blood pressure, in the Spring it intends to offer Tai Chi classes, and chair exercises are also in the offing. Dobbins is also pondering classes of cultural interest, and has expanded meal-delivery routes to include Barnsdall – and is willing to expand further for eligible Natives.
The site also has started playing music: Classical, Big Band, Country and other tunes, that have witnessed some elders dancing in their chairs, WZZHC CEO Rogers said.
Mary Jo Trumbly said she was lukewarm about the Big Band sound, which was before her time. “I grew up with the Rolling Stones,” she said.
More on the horizon
The WZZHC is about to advertise for a Director of Senior Services as well as for activities coordinators in both Fairfax and Pawhuska to better serve elders that should expand elder activities even more.
Additionally, the WZZHC is poised to start canvassing elders by telephone in the next several weeks to see what their needs are and direct them to the various services that are available.
Monica Cheshewalla said the changes thus far are most welcome. She stopped by for a to-go order on Valentine’s Day and couldn’t dawdle because she had a ride. But she summed everything up for her perspective.
“So much has changed in the past six months,” she said. “It has grown. The food is better.
“This is a positive. We need to build our Nation up, not tear it down.
“There are good things going on.”