HISTORY OF THE BENJAMIN H. WILSON SENIOR ACTIVITY CENTER
The Ben Wilson Senior Activity Center today is a dynamic force dedicated to meeting the needs of senior citizens in Warminster and surrounding communities. It stands as a solid and important part of our community serving over 900 active members in the area. The Center’s development is an interesting story of community support and volunteer dedication which began almost 40 years ago. As we come up on our 28th Anniversary, it seems only befitting to take a look back to see how it was created, forged and took shape.
The first seeds of the Center were sown in 1974 when a group of approximately 150 senior citizens met informally to socialize at the Buxmont Unitarian Universal Church in Warrington. The Township manager at the time, Stanley P. Gawel, had anticipated this number to grow and as it turns out he was correct. By 1977 there were various other senior citizen groups meeting at the Warminster Presbyterian Church and the Lacy Park Community Center. Due to the growth, the Township Supervisors recognized the need for a more appropriate space and reviewed plans for the revision of the Warminster Fire Department building to accommodate the seniors, who subsequently met at the firehouse. The Supervisors later provided a contribution of $60,000 “to get things started” for a site for seniors, which was an important milestone taken in acquiring a place of their own. Beginning in 1983, Township supervisor at the time, Ray Regan along with a growing group of senior residents began their mission to get the senior citizens their own place. In 1987, a 6.3 acre parcel of land was acquired by Giuseppe Giaimo along Street Road and Delmont Avenue. Giuseppe Giaimo deeded 2 acres to the Township for the senior center building site. At that point, the Board of Supervisors, township staff and representatives from the senior citizens advisory board met at the Township building to begin plans for the Center.
Construction began in Spring 1987 and the Center was “opened” in August 1988 with no members and no building. The senior citizens from Warminster, Warrington, Warwick and Ivyland areas met for the entire month of August and part of September 1988 at the Warminster Parks and Recreation Center while the finishing touches were being done at the new Center. The original plan was to name the Center “Warminster Township Senior Community Center”. However, during the final stages of the project, Benjamin H. Wilson, the local state Representative at the time, died on May 8, 1988. Representative Wilson had been a driving force in supporting the establishment of the Center so the Center was renamed the “Benjamin H. Wilson Senior Center” in recognition of the tremendous support he had provided.
The Center officially opened in September 1988 to rave reviews in spite of a few construction glitches. Members admired the entrance columns, the 2-story vaulted lobby ceiling and the balcony overlooking the lobby. The balcony loft area was soon occupied by the Warminster Amateur Radio Club furthering the commitment to the community by the Township. The facility featured a 3,000 square foot dining room which provided sufficient space for a lunch program seating 200 members as well as space for meetings and events. Other features provided were a large commercial-grade kitchen, a library, pool room, conference/activity room, craft room with a ceramics kiln, and two staff offices.
The Center became an immediate success and by the end of its first year several hundred people were counted as members. From the beginning the seniors had plenty of activities planned. These included golf at Five Ponds Golf Club, classes in ceramics and crafts as well as group discussions. Lunch was provided 5 days a week to approximately 85 members during that first year. It included a full course hot meal served daily at 11:30 am. A Meals-on-Wheels program was instituted in conjunction with Bucks County Area on Aging servicing those residents who were housebound. Once lunch was concluded, the afternoon activities began such as pinochle, bingo, tap dancing, square dancing, bridge, and line dancing. Members also bowled twice a week at the Thunderbird Lanes.
Membership took off and by the end of 1989, there were 850 members. Thanks to so many people who volunteered their time and expertise that first year was a great success. The first annual volunteer awards ceremony was held in August 1989 and the first anniversary dinner dance on September 23, 1989. Also, for the first time, in August, the Center began offering evening programs including classes and discussion groups. In October 1989, the Center was able to purchase exercise equipment thanks to a donation from the Exxon Corporation. In November 1989, the Center instituted the first non-smoking bingo party. Things were moving along at a pretty rapid pace!
From 1988 to 1994, the Center was operated by the Township who funded staffing and other expenses. By 1994, the members were very proud of their Center and wanted the privilege of governing and operating it on their own. The Township recognized the wisdom of this change, expressed confidence in the seniors abilities and supported the move to establish “The Benjamin H. Wilson Senior Center” as a non-profit corporation, under the direction of a volunteer executive board comprised of 5 officers and 5 trustees elected annually by the members, from the membership. The first order of business for the board was to hire a manager. The first manager for the Center was David Ralston and together with the board, David quickly created a business plan to generate revenue to meet the Center’s operational expenses. In order to succeed in this venture, the Center went into partnership with the Township with an agreement to pay the Township $1 per year to lease the building. The Township also maintains the exterior of the building and some grounds keeping. A formal agreement was also executed with the Bucks County Area Agency on Aging to provide a daily nutrition program and access to the agency’s many senior programs. Other revenue streams were swiftly put into place such as banquet hall rental, trips, and weekly bingo. Many fundraising events were started and continue as a tradition for the Center today. There are the spaghetti dinner, lottery, pancake breakfast, fashion show, craft fair, and tea party.
Today the Center continues to be a vibrant part of the community providing so many activities and events for our area seniors. There are AARP volunteers who provide free income tax preparation for members, 55 Alive classes, blood pressure screenings, and flu shots. The Center also partners with the American Red Cross to provide use of the facility in cases of emergency and with the Board of Elections to provide access as a voting site. Over the years, the list of activities has grown to an impressive array such as bridge, aerobics, pool, computer education, wood carving, art classes, line dancing, knitting & crocheting, computer bowling, mah jongg, pinochle, zumba, and ping pong. Earl Baxter, our resident travel agent, and his staff of volunteers coordinate approximately 35 trips a year to many interesting and diverse destinations. The trips are usually one day to several days in duration and include casinos, dinner theaters, outlets, and mystery trips, where the destination is only known by Earl.
As the Center now reaches its 28th Anniversary, over 100 volunteers provide hands-on support, contributing to its outstanding success in meeting the needs of senior citizens in Warminster and surrounding townships. Having an active participating membership has aided greatly in the Center’s thriving presence in the community, and diverse programming has contributed a key element to its success. The Center currently employs a manager, bookkeeper and food service administrator. In the final analysis, it is up to our members to shape and grow our Center and we have every confidence that members will live up to this challenge!