NIOBRARA COUNTY – Roughly 70 seniors and community members gathered for a picnic at the Niobrara Senior Center on June 18. Before everyone lined up to claim their food and drinks, all eyes were drawn to Mary Larson, who waved as she was introduced as the center’s new director.
From then on, Larson was the most popular person at the party. After quickly finishing her own lunch, she moved from table to table, talking with those she knew and introducing herself to those she didn’t until she and her husband helped distribute root beer floats to everyone.
Larson is not new to the community, as she has lived in Lusk for 12 years, spending the last three working as the Niobrara County High School secretary and as an aid prior. There are a lot of reasons she is excited for her new role, such as continuing to do paperwork, but chief among them is the people.
“Really, the seniors,” Larson said. “Getting to visit with them every day and hear the stories they tell and how their lives have changed. I love to hear those stories.”
Niobrara County Commissioner Elaine Griffith said she is excited to see Larson in this position.
“She will bring a lot of enthusiasm and knowledge,” Griffith said. “She knows the people, she’s well known in the community and will do an excellent job.”
Larson plans to use her connections with the school district to create partnerships between them and the Senior Center. That connection will start with an activity enjoyed by people of all ages: games.
The goal, Larson said, is to have Activities Director Tammie Jensen teach games typically played by seniors each afternoon, like cribbage and pinochle, to students at Lusk Middle School. Like most activities and events, this partnership will be on hold until state public health guidelines allow operations at the Niobrara Senior Center to return to normal post-pandemic.
The June 18 picnic was the first time most seniors gathered for a lunchtime meal since the center stopped all in-house activities in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in mid-March. Before the coronavirus, seniors joined one another at the center for lunch each weekday, but recently, staff members have delivered meals instead, leaving them in coolers outside their doors to mitigate contact.
“That’s been hard on the seniors,” Larson said. “We did get to open last Monday for activities, so they can come for games and exercise and that has helped tremendously.”
Approximately 50 people can be in the space at any given time to play cards, provided they can be six feet apart, per new state public health guidelines, Larson said.
As activities director, Jensen said she has heard from community members who are ready to return to life as usual at the center.
“Some are more leery than others,” Jensen said. “Obviously, we have the age group that is most susceptible. We also have a lot of people that have underlying issues that can make [COVID-19] very serious.”
Larson will face the challenge of heading such a critical entity in the Lusk community during the unprecedented situation posed by the coronavirus, but it’s one that Jensen said she is confident her new boss will be able to deal with.
“Mary will be awesome,” Jensen said. “She’s got a great personality, good people skills and she has enough backbone to stand up for what is right and make hard decisions. She’s going to be a real asset to our team.”