Shirley Braswell can’t let anyone pass without a friendly jibe.
Her quick wit makes her a favorite at the Lake City Center in Coeur d’Alene, which serves lunches and provides activities for the area’s senior crowd.
“I tease people. I’m not serious. They come in with a face on the floor, and I’ll say, ‘Do you hurt that bad?’ I get them laughing,” Braswell says.
The 85-year-old brunette emits a gravitational pull. People stop to visit with her, or to trade affectionate insults.
“You going to be good?” asks Rick Currie, the senior center’s administrative director.
“Heck, no. That’s no fun,” Braswell shoots back.
Braswell, a retired nurse’s aide, was recently recognized by the Area Agency on Aging of North Idaho for 15 years of volunteer work at the senior center. As the lunch greeter, she was the friendly, sometimes feisty presence that encouraged other seniors to embrace humor, socialize and talk to new people.
“A lot of people come in who have very little social interaction outside the senior center,” says Bob Small, director of the agency’s Retired Senior Volunteer Program. “To have somebody with a laugh or smile to make them feel at home can make all the difference in the world.”
Technically, Braswell is no longer the lunch greeter. She resigned after she moved into an assisted living center, where she now takes most of her meals.
But Braswell’s still a fixture at the senior center for twice-weekly pinochle games and bingo, and the occasional lunch. And she’s still firing off remarks to make people laugh, along with a few admonishments.
“Complaining doesn’t do anyone any good,” is one of Braswell’s regular lines.
“She’s fun, she’s cheerful and she never has a bad thing to say about anyone,” says Sarah Douglas, who ate lunch at Braswell’s table Monday at the senior center.
“She used to check people in for lunch, so we had no choice but to talk to her,” teases Douglas’ husband, Richard.
“Oh, I’m going to smack you,” Braswell replies.
The woman known for her hearty laugh is no stranger to pain and loss. Braswell has been widowed three times. Her first husband died when the small plane he was flying struck a power line and crashed into Lake Coeur d’Alene. Her youngest child, a daughter, was still in high school.
Braswell married again, but lost her second husband to cancer, which also claimed her third husband. Both of her sons died unexpectedly of heart attacks.
The heartache never overshadowed Braswell’s desire to reach out to people, though she has a hard time explaining the source of her resiliency.
“Don’t ask me, honey,” she says. “It just comes from someplace.”
“She’s had a hard life,” said her close friend, Sheri Poindexter. “Laughing makes it easier.”
It was after Braswell was widowed the last time, in 1998, that she started going to the senior center.
“Bite your lip and keep going,” was her motto. “I wasn’t about to sit at home, twiddle my thumbs and stare at the wall.”
She found a new group of friends at the senior center, who’ve become like family members, she says. And over the years, her volunteer hours accrued, passing the 4,000-hour mark.
“The value of what our volunteers do is enormous,” says Currie, the senior center’s director. “Shirley can relate to pretty much anyone. If you’ve been here any time at all, you’ll have a connection with her.”
Braswell received a plaque honoring her volunteer service. But the true measure of the appreciation for her work was attendance at her 85th birthday party last April. It was a catered dinner at the senior center.
More than 100 of her friends celebrated with her.
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