Jeanee Smiles lives up to her last name each time a person walks through the doors at the Waxahachie Senior Activity Center. As one of her many duties overseeing the center’s operations, Smiles ensures both visitors and members are warmly greeted and feel like they belong.
Smiles, whose retirement is slated for Aug. 31, came to the center 10 years ago from the civic center and was only to fill in for two weeks while the city searched to fill a vacancy. As time passed, however, the members made a lasting impression on her.
“The couple weeks that I was here, I thought this was an opportunity,” she said. “It sounds corny or like a cliché but you always want to know what God’s will is for your life. I believe that it was God’s will for me to come here and to try to make a difference in people’s lives because I am a servant.
“We can make a difference in people’s lives, whether you’re saying hello, good morning, or you make sure that they are getting the rehab exercises and follow through with that,” she said. “My purpose is to provide a place for our senior community to enjoy their golden years, being active and giving back to the community.”
At the center, Smiles and her volunteers have expanded the amenities and outreach programs through fundraising and donations. One of the first projects was to turn the small fitness room into a place where members could do rehab after surgery with new equipment added. Then, to expand the fitness center more, the covered porch was converted for use through grant writing and monetary and fitness equipment donations.
Smiles continued to expand the senior center’s mission by having it reach out and serve the community. One of the first programs with this goal was the “Be a Santa to a Senior” program, which helps people who might not have family, are homebound or are hospitalized during the Christmas season. It started nine years ago with 150 gifts provided the first year and has since grown to more than 1,850 gifts donated last year.
“The whole purpose of this project was to gather the community and to reach outside of the walls of the senior center,” Smiles said. “A lot of the seniors in this community and a lot of the families don’t have an opportunity to know much about us unless they have a senior member that comes here. This kind of opens the door.”
Another passion of Smiles has been to bring the younger and older generations together to where they can get to know and learn from each other. This was done through the creation of the “Living Today for Tomorrow” Next Generation Education STEM Garden located next to the senior center. The garden was funded through a series of grants, donations, and contributions from companies.
The garden’s different stations are staffed by senior citizens who have knowledge in the subject and share it with the students through hands-on learning activities. The garden’s components include a butterfly garden, container gardens and demonstration stations. When she retires, Smiles will serve as a volunteer for the center, with a lot of her time growing the garden’s mission of connecting generations.
“My plan is to continue and be in the garden,” she said. “I want to complete it. It is a $750,000 budgeted program. We are raising the money for it and have raised a little over $200,000. We are up and running with 13 learning modules and now I have the time to dedicate to the project and the grant writing and the facilitating of the events.”
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Smiles will take the garden virtually into the classroom for the upcoming school year, which will provide students the chance to learn from the seniors while keeping them safe as well.
Even though she’s retiring, Smiles said she’s not leaving her adopted family behind.
“A lot of them have been my mentors,” she said. “For instance, Mattie Borders was very near and dear to my heart. Although she was not here a lot (at the center), when she was here, I listened to every word and piece of advice she gave me.
“It has been a wonderful journey,” she said. “It is not one that is coming to an end but one that is going to a different crossroad.”