The Whitney Senior Center (WSC) promotes the holistic well-being of all people 55+ in the greater St. Cloud, Minnesota, area by providing opportunities for social interaction, recreation, and education.

"We engage, enrich, and empower the diverse interests and needs of people with dignity, innovation, and joy," said WSC Director Paula Woischke.

We support successful aging through visionary leadership, long-range planning, established collaborations, and community partnerships."

What is the history of the Whitney Senior Center?

Established in 1976, the WSC is a public governmental organization "that accomplishes its mission in a non-discriminatory, inclusive manner, emphasizing sensitivity and lifelong learning for all participants," Woischke said. A model for senior centers throughout the state and nation, the center has strong and ongoing collaborations with various local human service agencies, private businesses, and post-secondary institutions. 

WSC helped to initiate Age-Friendly Minnesota movement planning as a task force founding partner/creator along with the City of St. Cloud and other stakeholders and is poised for MN 2030: Looking Forward to an Age-Friendly Minnesota—Increasing and Developing Program Opportunities. That initiative has the Minnesota Department of Human Services and Minnesota Board on Aging continuing "to chart a course forward for making our state an inclusive and welcoming place for all regardless of age."

In 2006, WSC launched its Whitney WithOut Walls (WWOW) program, which allowed many programs and services to reach local satellite sites to expand accessibility to a larger number of older adults in Central Minnesota. WWOW has received several awards since its inception. As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, the WSC quickly transitioned its programming of in-person workshops to virtual programming.

"We are determined to further our mission to provide opportunities for older adults to stay socially connected in innovative ways," Woischke said. "We will expand WWOW to CAIRO, the COP House, Nelson Mandela Center, and the Higher Works Collaborative."

How partnerships are key to Whitney Senior Center success

In addition to working closely with the Central MN Council on Aging and CentraCare Health, WSC has also joined forces with the United Way of Central MN, the College of St. Benedict, and St. John’s University to expand programming, including caregiver support, that benefits people’s physical and mental health.

With Title IIID funding, these partners have played a key role in diabetes prevention, providing in-kind and match to the senior center's project. Each year, these partners train 52 nursing students, strengthening the future health care workforce. After training is complete, the students lead 15 cohorts of participants through the National Diabetes Prevention Program, which has been recognized as National Insitute of Senior Centers Program of Excellence. 

The center has what Woischke describes as "a multitude of partnerships within the aging services network." Those partners include the Central MN Council on Aging, United Way of St. Cloud Area, CentraCare Health, College of St. Benedict, St. John’s University, and Lakeside Medical Center in Pine County.

"We also have an RSVP volunteer with a background in human resources, and she has been instrumental in working with large employers throughout our region as she presents our wellness workshop offerings to employees as part of their on-site wellness programs," Woischke said. "She also works closely with physicians/clinics, housing facilities, support groups, social service providers, faith-based organizations, and grass-root organizations to promote our evidence-based programming. She is a vital piece of our community health worker model, connecting our CHWs with referral sources throughout our region."

Among the many things evolving due to the COVID-19 pandemic is how older adults use technology. WSC responded to this unprecedented situation by offering most programming—including fitness, wellness, and humanities classes—virtually through a HIPAA-compliant Zoom platform. Most of the evidence-based workshops are offered both in-person and virtually.

"The WSC has experienced first-hand the need to be flexible as we continue to reach out to older people to keep them engaged and socially connected," Woischke said. "WSC realizes there remain several older adults without access to technology. Therefore, WSC proposes to offer a hybrid of in-person and virtual evidence-based programming going forward. 

What goes on at Whitney Senior Center?

The core function of WSC is the opportunity to gather and build community.

"For older adults, it can become challenging to constantly reinvent a support system that dwindles due to death and distance." Woischke said. "The creation of relationships through a shared meal, workshop, or cup of coffee eases the angst of rebuilding that support system. The support system at WSC improves the likelihood of attendance at an exercise class, healthy management of depression/social isolation, and improvement of overall well-being."

The center's offerings are designed to appeal to the broadest group of older adults in the St. Cloud region. In addition to a wide variety of evidence-based wellness workshops, the center's community health worker network provides one-on-one health coaching through EnhanceWellness and the PEARLS program to help minimize social isolation. The WSC Community Health Worker Initiative was recogized as a NISC Program of Excellence honorable mention.

In early 2023, the center kicked off a Kindness Campaign that included presentations and education around addressing grief, anxiety, and traumatic events. Among the topics for discussion:

  • How to stop cyberbullying
  • Effective conflict resolution
  • Moving from indifference to action
  • Community Adult Mental Health Initiative

"To raise awareness and education on kindness, WSC strived to help older adults recognize situations in which they could address those who are being unkind," Woischke said. In late 2023, the campaign moved into what she described as "action."

"We created snowflakes to be posted around our building that noted acts of kindness that we have done or received. We promoted action items in our daily/weekly newsletters, hosted collections for coats, food for veterans, shoes for other countries, and promoted our community to be kind to one another and to speak up if unkind actions are taking place."  

Volunteers at senior center coat drive
Some scenes from the Whitney Senior Center coat drive, which was part of the 2023 Kindness Campaign.

Still not a member of the National Institute for Senior Centers? Join today, membership is free. 

If your center has completed a recent study or assessment or is trying out some new programming approaches, we’d love to hear about it. And if you haven't already, we'd encourage you to join the National Institute of Senior Centers (NISC). Free to all senior centers (and their personnel), NISC supports senior centers with best practices and innovations in programming, as well as networking and training opportunities. Ask for help, leverage NISC resources, or share your successes like the City of St. Cloud Whitney Senior Center. Find out how you can become a NISC Affiliate today. 

Photos courtesy Whitney Senior Center