This past Sunday was Northwestern Community Development’s (NCDC’s) sixth annual Senior Gala. The gala is a community building event geared toward the elderly residents of Evanston. This year’s theme was a Mardi Gras ball complete with intricate decorations, king cake, a jazz band, and student group performances. I first attended Senior Gala my freshman year and to be completely honest, I was not, at first, excited about going. The only previous experience I had with senior citizens was singing at nursing homes in the second grade. Two individuals I’ve met through Senior Gala have greatly changed my perspective on the event.

Fast-forward eleven years to my freshman year of college when I was standing at the doors of a local assisted living center with an arm full of balloons about to enter into my first Senior Gala. I had been recruited to help decorate and execute the event. Amidst all of the taping and hanging of decorations, a voice chimed in from the back of the room, “Blair’s here!” A woman pranced in the room in a leopard leotard with black leggings and Mardi Gras beads draped around her neck. At seventy-three years old, Blair led the Evanston yoga club, was on the governing board of her apartment complex, and knew everyone who was anyone within the city limits. She quickly gained control of the room and took it upon herself to dance through the halls of the retirement home promoting the ball. The morale of the room brightened instantly, and whether coincidental or not, the band (The Senior Stompers) struck up their first tune. The rest of the day sailed by and with Blair putting everyone at ease with her charming and electric demeanor, it was clear that students felt more comfortable approaching other residents. After that day, I’ve been involved in the planning of Senior Gala each year, and each year I’m thrilled to see more and more involvement from NU students.

Last year, we had over forty student volunteers show up to dance and mingle with the residents of Norshore Retirement Home. That’s where I met Carl. He’s tall, has wispy white hair, soft eyes, and a calm demeanor. This particular gala wrapped up with an open mic session where residents were invited to participate. Blair, as expected, circulated to all of the tables encouraging any and all attendees to step up. From a back table, Carl slowly raised his hand, took off his hat, and cautiously walked to the microphone. Shocked, we all listened as a deep and soulful voice escaped his open mouth. Stunned silence was followed by incredible applause and excitement as his song ended and he made his way back to his seat. His smile radiated from his back corner of the room, and I have never been so proud to be a part of an event that allows individuals to share their talents. The gala this past Sunday combined so many of the efforts from years past – the decorations were on point, Carl got to sing once again, and our student volunteers were more engaged than ever.  I’ve loved watching Senior Gala grow each year into a successful community engagement event.

–Taylor Billings

photo source: NCDC.

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