VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Head south on Princess Anne Road, through the wide-open fields of Pungo. Pass the grazing horses and roadside stands selling fresh produce.
Tucked beside Creeds Elementary School, you'll find a shingle-covered building that, prior to the pandemic, offered senior citizens a place to socialize, take dance classes, play bingo and more.
For 15 months, though, there was nothing. But now, the place that had become a community hub for the area's oldest residents is coming back to life. The sign outside the Senior Resource Center is no longer blank; in black lettering, it states, "We are open again!"
The center, in the far southern reaches of Virginia Beach, opened June 22 after the coronavirus shuttered it for more than a year.
Last Thursday afternoon, Rita Trammell was back teaching her weekly line dancing class.
"Stomp and flick. Right, left, right," she called out over the music. "Stomp and flick. Left, right, left."
Among the participants was 87-year-old Rosemary Stepnowski who lives alone in Virginia Beach and was filled with excitement when she learned of the reopening. Being able to gather in person again is a blessing, she said.
News of the opening traveled via email, the monthly newsletter in the mail and local church announcements. Beth Swanner, a longtime volunteer at the center, said it is going to take time before the center is as lively as it was before the pandemic.
She said she has friends who are nervous to rejoin social gatherings, so for the time being, are staying home. "They hear so much, they don't know what to believe," she added. "They are living in fear."
Johnnie Williams, president of the center, agrees. "This will be a gradual process," he said. There is no rush, he added. "We want everyone to feel comfortable."
Events are free and run by volunteers. The center has about 800 people on its mailing list, though it's uncertain how the pandemic affected membership numbers.
During the center's closure, Williams said he continued to send out the monthly newsletter, but a growing number were returned in the mail. "A lot of them are coming back," he said. "I can only assume they have passed away."
On Google, the center is still listed as "temporarily closed." Williams isn't sure how to change that.
Despite the technical quandaries and the reluctance of some to return, he's sure the center will make a strong comeback.
"This place gives people a chance to get together," he said, thumbing through a stack of photo albums containing memories of events held at the center in years past. Veterans' Day celebrations. Fourth of July cookouts. A birthday party for the first member to reach 100 years old.
July is set to be packed full of activities, including Tuesday afternoon Bingo and Friday morning Tai chi. Cards are played four times weekly. A potluck lunch is planned for later in the month.
"If you feed people, they will come," Williams says with a chuckle.
Scores of the members live alone, and these lunches offer a rare time to mingle and eat in the community.
"When you get older, your friends pass away," he said. "So you have to make new friends."
Swanner, who lives alone, nodded in agreement. She's particularly excited to again be able to attend the center's weekly writing classes. She recently finished a poem called "Perseverance."
Her husband died 19 years ago. "My friends are my family," she said as she pointed to a sign atop a bookshelf filled with donated DVDs.
It reads: We don't stop laughing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop laughing.
Author's Note: The video below is on file from March 11, 2021.