Generations: Lakes area Engage program attendance booms

“I remember, at the first Valentine’s Day party there were three people that attended, and I recruited one to help,” she said. “This last Valentine’s Day party we had at least 65 people.”

Engage program events included celebrating the program itself with a Piñata.
Contributed / Engage / for Generations

Editor's Note: The following originally appeared in the 2023 Generations magazine, which was included as a free insert of the Tribune in March 2023. Read the magazine in its entirety  HERE  online.

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Four years ago, Melia Kerrins-Stevenson began building the Engage program for retired residents in the Detroit Lakes area.

“I remember, at the first Valentine’s Day party there were three people that attended, and I recruited one to help,” she said. “This last Valentine’s Day party we had at least 65 people.”

Melia Kerrins-Stevenson organizes more than 60 events per month and has seen more than 1,000 participants each month.
Barbie Porter / for Generations

The Engage program averages more than 60 events each month and sees more than 1,000 participants per month, on average, Kerrins-Stevenson reported. The increased attendance at events has been seen across the board, from going on adventures, playing games, hitting the town, sharing hobbies or enjoying coffee and conversation.

While activities are fun for Engage members, Kerrins-Stevenson said the most important part of the program, to her, is providing people with the opportunity to build friendships. While she watched many friendships bloom in the past few years, it almost all came crashing down when the COVID-19 pandemic brought gatherings to a halt.


“I was in Mexico with the family when the world shut down,” she recalled. “I was told the DLCCC doors were closing.”

She talked to Detroit Lakes Community and Cultural Center CEO Peter Jacobson and he agreed the program needed to continue, albeit in a different direction. With reduced hours and options, Kerrins-Stevenson created daily Zoom get-togethers, activities and activities they could do with their family, out of the house.

Executive Director for the Historic Holmes Theatre and CEO Peter Jacobson cooked a thank you luncheon for city workers, which was hosted by Engage members.
Contributed / Engage / for Generations

“I made a Christmas lights scavenger hunt, where people came to get a list and then had two hours to find all the lights, in their car with their own family,” she said.

When COVID-19 restrictions were lifted, the number of participants in the Engage program leaped. Kerrins-Stevenson looks forward to continued growth with the retiree programming, so that when the 52-year-old hits her golden years, she can join in more of the fun activities.

RV cross-country trip leads Engage director to finding new town to call home

Kerrins-Stevenson grew up in Southern California and went into the teaching field. She met her first husband, they moved to Colorado and welcomed their first child.

Melia Kerrins-Stevenson saw an opportunity to offer programming for retirees in the lakes area. The program, Engage, has boomed since it started four years ago.
Barbie Porter / for Generations

“He was number nine out of 10 (kids), and wanted to raise our kids with a big family, so we moved to where he grew up – Massachusetts,” she said, adding after they relocated they welcomed their second child.

Kerrins-Stevenson was an elementary school teacher, but gave up her career to become a full-time caregiver when her first husband fell ill with cancer.


“When he died, my passion for teaching died,” she said. “It’s hard to explain, but I felt lost for the next 10 years.”

During her floundering decade, she worked as a church secretary, taught swimming and water aerobics at the pool and took various other jobs while focusing on being the mother that her kids needed.

She was told not to make any moves during the first year of grief. She heeded the advice, but the draw to relocate and raise her kids in a small town community remained after the initial year. She had no idea where that town might be, until she took an RV trip and stopped in Detroit Lakes to see an aunt.

During her visit to Detroit Lakes, Kerrins-Stevenson and her kids, (who were 12 and nine years old at the time) stayed at her aunt’s cabin on Lake Maud.

“I had an overwhelming feeling that I had arrived home,” she said. “But, I wasn’t looking to move; it was a trip with my kids.”

After arriving back in Massachusetts, she met up with a friend to share all the adventures at National Parks and silly things that happened during her family’s RV adventure. In the middle of her storytelling, her friend stopped her and looked her square in the eyes.

“She said, ‘You’re going to move to Minnesota,’” Kerrins-Stevenson recalled. “I thought she was crazy; no way was I going to sell a house, buy a house and rearrange my whole life.”

But, the idea was like a seed that had been planted. It seemed the roots were taking shape before Kerrins-Stevenson knew it. By the time her friend offered to watch her kids, so that she could visit Detroit Lakes and hunt for a house, Kerrins-Stevenson had seen what her friend saw, and accepted the offer.


“The thing was, I was not aware of deer hunting season,” she said.

Her airplane touched down as many in the area headed out to the deer stand, including her realtor.

“He sent his wife to show me houses,” she recalled. “That was one day. By day two, his wife was hunting, too.”

Kerrins-Stevenson flew back to the east coast and wrote off the idea. Even when the realtor reached out with a new listing, she initially declined. However, persistence from the realtor got Kerrins-Stevenson to send her aunt to view the property.

“I bought it sight-unseen,” she said.

Kerrins-Stevenson moved to Detroit Lakes in 2015, with her daughter Maggie and son Colin.

After moving to the area, she met her current husband, Joel.

“If you ask him, he would say he was a widower with two girls, and he was praying for someone, so God plucked me out of Massachusetts and dropped me in his backyard,” she said.


Engage group members enjoyed kayaking and other outdoor activities year round, in addition to many indoor activities and outings.
Contributed / Engage / for Generations

As she began to start a new book with a new love, she began teaching water aerobics and swim lessons at the Detroit Lakes Culture and Community Club. Kerrins-Stevenson also worked as a church secretary. At both jobs she saw a lack of programs and opportunities for retirees. She pitched ideas for senior citizen programming to both entities, but was told there was no funding available.

When a new manager was hired at the DLCCC several years ago, Kerrins-Stevenson was told the manager wanted to hand off the senior citizen Silver Sneaker program to someone else.

At the same time she learned the senior citizen program at the Holmes Theatre was on the verge of disbanding due to low attendance with the Meals on Wheels program.

“The Holmes Theatre got a grant and was able to take over the senior center space, and turn it into the Holmes Art Cellar,” Kerrins-Stevenson said.

Kerrins-Stevenson offered to take on the programming for retired residents and was given the green light.

“She thought we would have a potluck once a month and maybe go for a walk or have coffee for a few hours a week,” Kerrinss-Stevenson said. “But, the next week I handed her a calendar (of events) with a coach trip planned for Branson.”

Kerrins-Stevenson laughed at how the two visions for the Engage program differed, but added appreciation that she was given the opportunity to grow it to what it has become.

“I truly believe that God used my experience of losing my spouse at a young age, as a way to prepare me for the next phase,” she said. “Because of my experience, I can relate to senior citizens more, in ways you can’t if you didn’t live through it.”

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