Detroit Lakes' new Engage program is like a summer camp for seniors

The Engage calendar is chock-full of camp-like events and outings: Group hikes, bike rides, games, crafts, dancing, field trips, fitness classes, learning opportunities, and lots more. Then there’s the social aspect; the chance to share new experiences with friends, meet new people, and make new friends.

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Engage Coordinator Melia Stevenson, right, with participants Kathy Mickelberg, center, and Mary Wosika, on a Heartland Trail Bike Ride arranged through the Engage program earlier this year. (Submitted Photo)

They say it’s like being back at kids’ summer camp — but even more fun.

The roughly 30 or 40 seniors who regularly join in activities through the Detroit Lakes Community and Cultural Center’s Engage program have an array of things they can choose to do throughout the year, from the tried and true — like the weekly Crumbcake and Coffee events that draw strong crowds every Monday morning — to the totally new, like tubing down the Otter Tail River, which a few of them had never done before.

The Engage calendar is chock-full of camp-like events and outings: Group hikes, bike rides, games, crafts, dancing, field trips, fitness classes, learning opportunities, and lots more. Then there’s the social aspect; the chance to share new experiences with friends, meet new people, and make new friends.

Engage Coordinator Melia Stevenson, center, leads a Line Dancing class with Engage participants in the basement of the Holmes Theatre in December. (Marie Johnson / Tribune)


Open to adults ages 50 and up, Engage activities are focused on overall wellness — mind, body and spirit. The program is intended to help seniors maintain a healthy lifestyle, healthy relationships, and a positive outlook on life.

It kicked off last February, and by all accounts, the program is meeting its mission. Every senior spoken to for this article (and there were many) had nothing but good things to say about Engage.

“It brings people together,” said Kathy Mickelberg, an active participant. “You establish friendships, and it oftentimes just fills a void that isn’t necessarily always filled when you get older. It’s a place to come together, share, and develop new friendships. Some of these people have lost their spouses...”

Henrietta Malchow, for example, lost her husband in December 2018, and she credits the Engage program with bringing her out of her shell.

“Engage got me out of the house,” she said. “It was just what I needed, the fellowship.”

Newly widowed, she found that the program’s group outings — in particular a bus trip to Chanhassen to see the musical “Mamma Mia” — “showed me, ‘I can do it.’”

Newcomers to Detroit Lakes have also found Engage to be a welcome social outlet. Char Brekken, who moved to town six years ago, said getting to know a new community, and make new friends, was challenging for her at first.

“It was kind of a lonely time,” she said. “The Engage program changed things for me. I have met and befriended interesting people, have become involved with community events, and have loved becoming involved, or ‘engaged,’ in activities I never imagined would be so fun… Getting older, retiring and maybe being alone doesn’t necessarily lead to a lonely, boring life. So much to live for — get involved!”


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Sue Baker reads to children as part of the Engage program's intergenerational "Reading Buddies" activity. (Submitted Photo)

Like many Engagers, Brekken gave praise and credit to Engage Coordinator Melia Stevenson for creating the program and leading it with “enthusiasm, warmth and genuine interest.”

“I just love all the energy that Melia has,” said Barb Birznieks. “But especially, I enjoy how she’s developing a community. I find it very fun.”

As coordinator, Stevenson is charged with coming up with about 15 to 20 hours’ worth of Engage activities and events every week. Many of the activities begin as suggestions from the Engagers themselves, and Stevenson transforms turn those ideas into reality.

“I have the world’s best job,” said Stevenson. “I’m kind of like a camp counselor for seniors. It’s really fun.”

Stevenson, a former elementary school teacher who actually was a summer camp counselor years ago, is passionate about the Engage program. And she sees it pay off with her own eyes.


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Pontoon rides were a hit with Engagers this past summer. (Submitted Photo)

“The intrinsic value I see is absolutely huge,” she said. “The program creates a community where people are caring for each other. They look out for each other, even after they move on to nursing homes and such… Looking at the demographics in Detroit Lakes, we have a high population of seniors, and I believe this program is invaluable to keeping seniors engaged — mind, body and spirit.”

In addition to everything already mentioned, Engagers have opportunities to attend performances at the Holmes Theatre in a special group seating area; learn about other cultures through their “Passport Around the World” program; be part of a book club; watch presentations and attend seminars on a variety of interesting topics; bring their favorite dishes to pass at potluck socials; sign up for water aerobics or Silver Sneakers senior fitness classes together; give back to the community through group volunteer efforts; and take part in intergenerational activities like the “Reading Buddies” program, where they read to local schoolchildren.

In the past year, Engagers have toured Lakeshirts’ headquarters, taken a weeklong Coach bus trip to Branson, Missouri, traveled to Twins games and the Minnesota State Fair, learned how to make martinis from the folks at Hub 41, and got a lesson in making homemade guacamole at Don Pablos, among other special events and field trips.

Most of the regular Engage activities take place in the lower level of the Holmes Theatre, in the same space as the Senior Center and Holmes Art Cellar, and right next to the community center. Many of the seniors do their workouts at the center either right before or right after an Engage event.

For more information about Engage, visit . A new calendar of events is posted there every month.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published in the Detroit Lakes Tribune's Winter 2020 Health Beat magazine. Read more great stories like this one HERE , or pick up a free copy of Health Beat on local newsstands.


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