By Richard Rourk
A cornerstone of the community is celebrating 20 years of service inside its current building this year.
Clinchfield Senior Adult Center may have come from humble beginnings, but that has not stopped the gathering place for so many of Unicoi County’s citizens from making a huge splash on the rest of the county.
“The Clinchfield Senior Adult Center officially started in February of 1975,” Clinchfield Senior Adult Center Interim Director Charlene O’Dell told The Erwin Record. “We were and still are one of the only non-profit senior centers in the area; all of the neighboring senior centers are county or city run. We were able to move into an old white house that is no longer there, but was located behind the old Erwin Hotel on Main Avenue.
“The house wasn’t sufficient so we moved inside the lobby of the original YMCA building (which is where the Erwin post office currently sits) with one pool table and one card table and some chairs. Someone came up with the suggestion to move into the old bowling alley at the YMCA building so that was where they moved it. You had to enter where the pins used to be set and walk up a slope to get in. It was so dark with no windows; it was like a cave.”
In a letter to the then director of Erwin Senior Citizens Program, Evelyn Shultz, dated May 8, 1976, Town of Erwin City Recorder Joe Frazier commended the work of the upstart senior program.
“Your senior citizens program continues to be the most popular program ever sponsored for the elderly of our community,” Frazier said in his letter. “I continually hear many, many compliments on both the nutritional and activity phases of the program that are carried on by you and the members of your staff. I am hopeful that our local government agencies will always recognize the need in our community for this type of program and will assist with whatever means that are required to continue its existence.”
When it was time for the Erwin Senior Citizens Program to move again, they were able to move into a more permanent structure. According to O’Dell, the current location of Clinchfield Senior Adult Center on Union Street in downtown Erwin could not have been completed without the help of former Erwin Mayor Russell Brackins.
“Undoubtedly, the senior center building project could not have happened if Russell Brackins had not been Clinchfield Senior Adult Center board chairman during the entire process and mayor of Erwin during the sale of the site of the old YMCA to the U.S. Postal Service,” O’Dell said. “During his tenure as mayor of Erwin, he negotiated with the U.S. Postal officials concerning the sale of the site of the old YMCA building on Main Avenue to insure that the planned new facility would be located downtown. In September 1996 an agreement was reached which specified that the postal service would pay $180,000 initially and then pay the Town of Erwin over a period of years for construction of the building – a unique arrangement for the postal service. Once the agreement was finalized, the senior center and the YMCA, non-profit organizations that utilized the building rent-free, were given 25 days to vacate the building. The deadline was firm because an asbestos abatement team was scheduled to begin work at the end of that time period.
“At that time, Mayor Brackins had been a senior center board member for five years and chairman for a few months. The YMCA was losing only the use of the gymnasium, whereas the senior center was losing its entire physical facility. The Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen granted permission for the senior center to move into the old municipal building temporarily. Mayor Brackins requested the Erwin aldermen to vote to divide the $180,000 equally between the YMCA and the senior center for use as relocation assistance, which they agreed to do,” O’Dell continued.
But, there was still work to be done.
“Unlike most senior centers, which are under either city or county governments, Clinchfield Senior Adult Center is a privately chartered 501(c)3 non-profit organization,” O’Dell said. “Suddenly, an agency which had always struggled just to meet operating expenses, and had no relocation funds except the promise of $90,000 in the future, had to find the means to fund a permanent location. Unfortunately, there were no existing buildings suitable for renovation. However, Chairman Brackins’ vision, guidance and unique ability to facilitate creative funding opportunities made it possible for the senior center, three years later, to move into a new, custom-designed, one-level brick building constructed on downtown county-owned property provided by the Unicoi County Commission.”
The current building opened in 2000 and is located at 220 Union St. in Erwin. Those responsible for its construction used as many resources as possible to make it a reality.
“Wayne Lewis heard that there was a bank in Kingsport that was going to be demolished and was giving away any goods in their building for free, so we took them up on that,” O’Dell said. “We used everything we could use. Every piece in this building has a story. We had men stripping copper out of the wires. We were also able to use about 25 lights from that facility here – those lights are now 40 years old and still working.”
According to O’Dell, the building that houses the current Clinchfield Senior Center is made from a special type of brick from General Shale Brick.
“We were the test for the brick,” O’Dell said. “They are more like cinder block construction instead of veneer. Actually our walls can withstand strong winds such as tornadoes because they actually can give a little.”
The building, which was built in 1999, was done so with the help of several Unicoi County inmates.
“We had the cooperation of the sheriff’s department and we were able to use inmate labor,” O’Dell said. “We had a Thanksgiving lunch and invited the prison crew that worked on the building and their families. The inmates were so excited to show their families their hard work when we actually opened, we had several come back to see the facility.”
Since Clinchfield Senior Adult Center has found its permanent home, the facility has played host to several events and as a site for other organizations to meet.
“We have hosted parking and breakfast for the Apple Festival. We set up booths at the Strawberry Festival. We’ve had golf and cornhole tournaments,” O’Dell said. “We’ve hosted fashion shows, talent shows, plays, art auctions, raffles, quilt shows, senior games, Rook tournaments, billiards tournaments, health fairs, rummage sales, legal services and so much more. We have worked with and welcomed events with United Way, Rotary Club, Kiwanis, Erwin Monday Club, Blue Ridge Pottery Club, UCHS, Unicoi County Hospital, Unicoi County Library, Unicoi Chamber of Commerce, the YMCA, the health department, the sheriff’s department and so many more great organizations.”
Clinchfield Senior Adult Center has been a staple of the community for more than 45 years and will continue to do so in a post COVID-19 world.
“We are currently closed due to COVID-19, but we are still working on events that we can host virtually if possible and we will still provide food to those in need,” O’Dell said. “We will continue to work hard for our incredible community.”