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Duplin County plans much needed new senior center

The second floor of the Duplin County senior center is off-limits to seniors, as it narrow stairs and lack of an adequate fire escape make it unsafe and inaccessible. Instead, it's used as storage space, which is limited.
Ryan Shaffer / PRE News & Ideas
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The second floor of the Duplin County senior center is off-limits to seniors, as it narrow stairs and lack of an adequate fire escape make it unsafe and inaccessible. Instead, it's used as storage space, which is limited.

Duplin County is in the process of designing a new senior center. The current facility sits behind the county courthouse just off Duplin Street in Kenansville. The 2-story brick building no longer meets the needs of the people it services, and hasn’t for decades, says some community leaders. The current structure limits the agency from receiving nearly 3 times its current allotment from the state due to its size alone.

Melissa Brown has worked at Duplin County’s Services for the Aged for 30 years, and she’s led the department for the last 10. Her department is in the process of designing a new facility because the current one hasn’t met their needs for decades. It’s an all-in-one office and event space totaling 3,600 sq. Ft. -- smaller than the average Dollar General. The 2nd floor is off-limits to seniors because of the narrow stairs, no elevator, and lack of an adequate fire escape. There they store everything from records and Christmas decorations to microwaves and sanitary supplies. In short, the space is filled to the brim. When architects visited to learn more about the center’s needs, Melissa Brown showed them around.

"I showed them every nook and cranny in what we do here, and they kept saying 'How do you do it?," Brown shared. "'I said we have no other choice,' I said."

On the main floor are offices, a conference room, and a small, triangle-shaped multipurpose room. It’s where everything happens. Meals, Monday dance classes, cornhole, arts and crafts, bible study. If set up just right, it can host up to 50 people. Since it’s the only space available on site, only one activity takes place at a time, unlike surrounding counties’ facilities.

Brown says accessibility is another reason for a new center.

"Just getting into the facilities is a challenge. They can't park across the road and walk up the incline," she said.

Woody Brinson is Duplin County’s representative in the North Carolina Tar Heel Legislature, an organization set up by the state legislature to advocate for seniors. He, too, has been pushing for a new facility. Brinson says the lack of space means visitors do not stick around for long.

"Based on our needs and our ability to serve right now, we're restricted a new facility will allow more people," he said. "A nice, attractive facility that is appealing to the people will attract additional people. It's been shown in other counties. It's like field of dreams when you build it, they will come.

The amount of space available matters, not just for activities but for funding too. The state appropriates roughly $1,250,000 to 169 senior centers across the state to support social activities. That 1.2 million has remained unchanged for 18 years and is broken up into even shares. Facilities that are certified as Centers for Excellence through NCDHHS receive 3 shares. Centers of Merit receive 2 shares and General-Purpose facilities like Duplin’s receive one share – or roughly $4,500 annually. But, as more centers achieve certification, the size of each share dwindles. Because of its size alone, Duplin County’s center is ineligible to receive certification.

"We don't meet the square footage," she said. "You must have at least 4000 square feet of space for them for activities we don't meet that in this facility."

Woody Brinson and the Senior Tar Heel Legislature are seeking to double the pot of money for senior activities and change the funding formula. They're asking the state legislature for a minimum of $500,000 to be evenly distributed among all the senior centers, with the rest being assigned by certification status. He said the additional money could help rural centers like Duplin’s provide more programming and hire instructors.

"One of the biggest problems with people getting older is you want them to stay home as long as they can because it's less expensive to keep a person at home than to put them in a care," he said. "But you don't want them to be what they call socially isolated. You want to have activities and that's why it's good that we have a county public transportation that can pick them up and bring them here. Right now because of the limited space, some of them come primarily just for the nutritional meal at lunch."

This is part of a larger package the Senior Tar Heel legislature is asking. They’re pushing for millions in additional funding for Adult Protective Service to address staff shortages, $8 million for the Home and Community Care Block Grant to reduce the more than 10,000 people on waiting lists, and higher standards and oversight in nursing homes.

Right now, the county has signed a contract to design and build a new facility on Duplin Commons in Kenansville. Though the exact size of the building has yet to be finalized, Brown is optimistic.

"I would be tickled with just about anything larger than what we have and where we have it," Brown said.

She looks forward to the day that it's built and having the ability to apply for certification.

"To me, it recognizes the staff, the hard work they're putting in, and the difference they're making for seniors," she said.

Ryan is an Arkansas native and podcast junkie. He was first introduced to public radio during an internship with his hometown NPR station, KUAF. Ryan is a graduate of Tufts University in Somerville, Mass., where he studied political science and led the Tufts Daily, the nation’s smallest independent daily college newspaper. In his spare time, Ryan likes to embroider, attend musicals, and spend time with his fiancée and two cats.