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School District Helps Link Seniors with Ways to Engage in Community


Doreen Empie enjoys exercising in the Enhance Fitness class three mornings a week at Greenridge Elementary School, working out with a group of seniors.

Going to the class made her aware of Comstock Park Public Schools’ Giving Closet, and so she stepped in to volunteer, folding up clothes to donate to families in need.

“I like to help people,” said Empie, a Comstock Park resident. “Once I got here I started to do different things… It really got me more social.”

Because the senior population in the area has grown rapidly, Superintendent Ethan Ebenstein is playing a key role in developing Golden Panthers, creating and spotlighting opportunities for seniors to connect with the community and school system. Many have had children and grandchildren in the district, and “the school system is that one binding tie,” he said.

Wilma Piccard works out
Wilma Piccard works out

More than a dozen seniors regularly attend the class. Another senior who attends has begun to volunteer at school events.

According to U.S. Census data,the population of people older than 50 increased 32 percent in the Comstock Park district from 2000-2010; with the total population only growing four percent. The school-aged population only increased 1.7 percent, and the number of adults aged 25-44 actually declined 10 percent.

As an unincorporated area, Comstock Park had no center or main gathering place for seniors or community education program.

Now, Greenridge, the district’s Early Childhood Center, is working to become a place for residents in their golden years to meet and host events. A senior lounge is open to serve as a place for socializing, book talks and even engaging with preschoolers.

“Like the concept of ‘It takes a village to raise a child,’ this is a village helping your elder members as well.” Ebenstein said. “It falls upon the community to take care of itself and come up with some option,” he said.

A Multi-Pronged Effort

Members of the Comstock Park Community Outreach are involved in the effort. The faith-based coalition, representing local businesses, governmental, educational, religious and community service organizations, formed in 2011 to improve the lives of individuals and families in Comstock Park. The organization’s areas of focus are at-risk students, senior citizens and the Hispanic population.

The fitness classes are held in partnership with Senior Neighbors, which serves nearly 4,000 seniors in Kent County each year.

Also, if seniors are present in the schools, they become more aware of events, needs and challenges in the district, Ebenstein said.

Anne Savage, a retired teacher and Comstock Park High School Class of 1959 valedictorian, said she’s happy to be connected with the school district.

“I just love it. We finally have a place to exercise,” she said.

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Golden Panthers

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio

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