Harper enjoys working with ‘extended family’

Published 9:23 am Monday, April 25, 2016

The sounds of the bingo game in the main area of the Vicksburg Senior Center could be heard back in the center’s den, as Jennifer Harper sat to talk about being its director.

Come October, Harper will have served as the center’s director for 14 years. It was a position she almost didn’t apply for.

“I applied for this job the last day they were accepting applications,” she said.

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At the time, Harper was the manager for United Medical, a company that provided medical services locally, and the company was going through a rough period.

“A lot of people were saying, ‘Jennifer, you ought to apply for a city job,’” she said. “I had never thought about that before. I didn’t know what I was getting into when I applied. I was flying by the seat of my pants and coming in to turn my resume in. I talked to a couple of people that knew of the senior center, participated here, and then I came for the interview.”

That interview put her directly in the crosshairs of the senior center’s interview board, which was organized at the insistence of then-Mayor Laurence Leyens, who believed the seniors should have a say in hiring the new director.

He told the seniors to examine the applications, interview the applicants and recommend candidates to the city’s human resources department.

“The interview board was the firing squad, because when I came in and sat down, they started firing questions left and right,” Harper said. “It was quite intimidating. They asked what’s your name and how old are you and why do you want this job. And some of them said, ‘Now, who are your parents?’

When I told who my parents were, they remembered my daddy, because my daddy was a (county) supervisor for many, many years. It helped, because my daddy was a prince of a fellow.”

The seniors also discussed the center’s events calendar, asked Harper for ideas she had for the center, “And the infamous question, why do you think you would make a good director of a senior center?”

“I told them you’ve got to be more or less called to serve, and you’ve got to love elderly people,” she said. “I’ve always been in the service business. I wanted to make a difference in somebody else’s life besides my husband and my kids.”

She had a second interview with city officials, “and the phone rang a few days later and they offered me the job.”

“I’ve had no regrets,” she added.

Her first day on the job, Harper said, involved a lesson on the senior center with Bea Warnock, who she described as the lead center’s “lead volunteer.”

“She met me at the door bright and early that first morning, and she showed me around, and showed me everything,” she said. “She showed me the calendar, told me which dates to highlight on that calendar, because those were deadline dates, and they (the seniors) like to have their calendars published by a certain day. She gave me the ups and downs of it.”

Everyone who went to the center during those first days, Harper said, was helpful, but the job a big one.

“I realized I needed help with this,” she said. “You can use volunteers, and it makes them feel good to volunteer and help, but at the time, my children were young, they were active in sports, and without an assistant I couldn’t go (watch them), and I didn’t feel right about relying on volunteers.”

She went to the Board of Mayor and Aldermen to hire a part-time assistant, and hired Arvida Avant, who worked as her assistant for 11 years.

Since taking the job as director, Harper has worked under three city administrations starting with Leyens, who described as “aggressive — do what it takes make them happy; be creative, fast paced.”

Paul Winfield, she said, “supported us in own way. I also had Sid Beauman and Michael Mayfield. I knew them and I went to them for board help.”

George Flaggs Jr., she said, “I one of those mayors who supports you, but if he disagrees with you, he’s fair.”

One accomplishment she credits the present administration with is the purchase in 2015 of a bus for the city, which allows the center members to be able to take day trips, something they have wanted since she became director.

“That’s a huge accomplishment for the board to financially find a way to afford it legal to make sure it’s not a huge liability for the city,” she said.

Harper said the activity at the center is ongoing.

“Either the phone is ringing and someone’s calling knowing about the services, or the businesses and supporters in the community calling anting to volunteer and call bingo and sometimes somebody will call and say, ‘I want to make a donation to the senior center.’

“We do a lot of arts and crafts, and supplies are expensive,” she said. “So we love it when someone wants to donate arts and craft supplies for crafts.”

And there are the meetings with seniors.

“Sometimes they want to discuss issues that are bothering them,” Harper said. “There for a while the Medicare changes, that had them in a whirlwind and they wanted to sit down and discuss it, and someimes they come in and want one-on-one attention, and they’re justt having a bad day.

“It depends on the mood of the individual that determines what hat I wear. Sometimes I have to be the comedian; I have to be the nurse; sometimes I have to be the cheerleader; counselor; you name it I’ve probably addressed it or researched it.”

Many times, she has to explain a story someone read in the paper or on the Internet.

And after 14 years the education continues.

“They’re learning from me and I’m learning from them,” she said.

“When my children were young, they would be the mothers and grandmothers,” she said. “They’d talk to me or talk to the children as a grandparent.

“They’ve taught me a good bit about how to be happy — you can’t do everything, you  can’t be everything. Be happy what you’re doing. They’re my extended family.”

“I’ve often asked myself, if I knew exactly what it took to be good director for a senior center, I would have said, ‘Oh no, I can’t do that, I can’t be that.’ Somehow I have. I think.”


About John Surratt

John Surratt is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in general studies. He has worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for newspapers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post staff since 2011 and covers city government. He and his wife attend St. Paul Catholic Church and he is a member of the Port City Kiwanis Club.

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