Enjoying holiday cheer at Besser Museum

News Photo by Diane Speer Karen Dunn of Sterling, a volunteer in the Northeast Michigan Community Service Agency’s Foster Grandparent program, traveled from Sterling on Thursday to take part in a special gathering at the Besser Museum where she enjoyed seeing the many Christmas trees decorated for the museum’s Season of Lights.

Volunteers in the Foster Grandparent and Senior Companion Programs got a first glimpse Thursday of the Besser Museum all decked out for Christmas. The museum’s annual Season of Light opens to the public Saturday with a Christmas gala from 6-8 p.m., but more than 60 participants in the two programs administered by NEMCSA’s Region 9 Area Agency on Aging came a bit early to enjoy the exhibits.

“We brought our senior volunteers together for a holiday gathering which also has an educational component,” said Heidi Powers, project director for both the Foster Grandparents and Senior Companions. “Our volunteers are all income eligible so we try to provide outreach opportunities for them that they might not normally do.”

Region 9 covers a 12-county area, so many of those in attendance Thursday came from outside Alpena County to participate. Among those pleased with her experience at the museum was Karen Dunn of Sterling, who volunteers at an elementary school as a Foster Grandparent.

“I drove 102 miles to be here,” Dunn said. “The museum is wonderful. I was really surprised by this facility here in Alpena and with the NOAA Museum that I also visited previously.”

Dozens of red poinsettias and playful gnomes factor big in this year’s Season of Lights decorating scheme. Along with seeing the many decorated trees, including trees of nations around the world and trees decorated by community service groups, Thursday’s visitors learned about the legends and lores regarding gnomes. They also took in a new planetarium show developed specifically for the holiday season by Thaddeus LaCoursiere, digital dome planetarium coordinator.

Powers said inservice sessions are held for the volunteers once a month, but that she used this one to also tie in a little holiday fun and appreciation for those who work in the Foster Grandparent and Senior Companion Programs.

“We collaborated with the museum and its staff,” Powers said. “We took advantage of their guided tours and planetarium program.”

The volunteers also were treated to a luncheon.

Foster Grandparents spend one-on-one time with students who have exceptional needs. Sometimes that involves serving as a mentor or a teacher and sometimes just being a “grandmother” to the students, Powers said.

Senior Companions provide one-on-one companionship to other seniors who are at risk of social isolation.

Dunn volunteers as a Foster Grandparent, and she said doing so has had a positive impact on her life.

“I get so much out of it,” Dunn said. “I have some disabilities and was home all the time. Now that I’m volunteering at the school, I get up every morning with a smile on my face and am anxious to get to school.”

Around the school, she said, she’s known as Grandma Karen.

“The school kids all clamor to get close to me,” Dunn said. “It’s such a good program.”

Museum Executive Director Christine Witulski said that Thursday’s gathering is just one of many expected during the holiday season, including visits by more than 500 area students. Anyone still interested in booking a private party or outing at the museum should called 356-2202.

Tickets for Saturday’s Season of Light Christmas Gala are $15 and can be purchased in advance at the museum or at the door.