Visitors to Jane Deau's retirement party were asked to contribute their hand prints to this canvas which will be hung on the wall of the Merrill Area Community Enrichment Center.
A pivotal moment in Jane Deau’s life happened on the sidewalk outside Pine Crest Nursing Home in 1973 when she was just 16 years old.
She had come to Pine Crest to apply for a job, but walked back out, unsure she could work with the residents. She steeled her nerves, gave herself a pep talk, walked back in and was hired on the spot. She had found her calling. By the age of 21, Jane had worked her way up to activities director for the facility.
“I always loved doing the arts,” she said. “Activities was a good fit for me.”
Last Wednesday, a retirement party for Jane was held at the Merrill Area Community Enrichment Center, where she has served as director for the past 28 years. More than 100 people came to wish her well, share stories and place their hands in paint for a wall mural.
In January 1987, after putting in several years at Pine Crest, Jane took over the Merrill Senior Center director post . The center featured a few large tables and a pool table in the basement of Merrill City Hall.
“Over the years, we’ve pretty much taken over the whole basement of City Hall,” Jane said. “The center was half this size and reminded me of a pool hall.”
The center’s main purpose was as a meal site for seniors. Although meals are still served, 28 years later, the center is a much different place.
“I left sheephead on Tuesdays,” Jane said, “but other than that, the entire center has changed.”
Jane’s own health has led her to an earlier than anticipated retirement. She had her first heart surgery in 2005 and has struggled with health issues ever since.
“If it wasn’t for my health issues, I would not be retiring,” she said.
But, Jane realized she couldn’t take care of other people if she didn’t take care of herself.
“I need to retire to get well,” she said. “I never admitted that to myself.”
Jane has loved her work with the aging population in Merrill. The people she served have been everything to her. She remembers names and faces of those she worked with over the years and cherishes many fond memories of friends long passed.
“I think it’s a blessing,” she said of her job. “I don’t know how many people have the opportunity to do that kind of a job.”
Other than during her illnesses and two mission trips, Jane has never been away from the center for more than a week at a time in 28 years.
She’s seen big changes in the resources available to senior citizens. When she saw a need and no program to meet it, she created one. Jane has won numerous awards for her innovative efforts.
“You have to take a look at what they want,” she said. “We’re seeing new people with new needs. We have to ask them what their needs are.”
For example, Jane created Our Time, which was the first social respite program in the state for people with dementia. Jane saw positive changes in the people who participated.
“It’s unbelievable some of the miracles I’ve seen firsthand,” she said.
Bringing children into the center to do activities with seniors was commonplace in Merrill before the “intergenerational” programs took off elsewhere.
Most recently, with funding from the Bierman Family Foundation, Jane was able to install a kitchen for a new Community Table meal program and purchase a small bus to take people on trips throughout Wisconsin.
Jane acknowledges that some of her projects had to be discontinued simply because they were too popular to be maintained.
“I’ve created these little monsters,” she said. “Some of these things I’ve created have gotten so big, they’ve gotten too big.”
The center has cultivated a group of volunteers that now numbers around 120. However, in 44 years, Jane is the only full-time employee of the center. Staff time has only increased by two hours in 28 years.
By initiating new programs and welcoming people with needs, beyond just senior citizens, the purpose of the center had evolved to the point that a name change was in order. A few years ago, on the 40th anniversary of the center’s founding, the name was changed to Merrill Area Community Enrichment Center to reflect its expanded mission.
Jane will continue to work two days a week through July and will help the new director through the transition. She hopes a new director will share her passion for the people they serve.
“It’s got to be about the people,” she said. “I don’t have a problem letting go of all this if I know the person is here for the right reason.”
Looking back on her career, Jane hopes she has brought value to the lives of the people she’s served, as well as the volunteers who have helped with the center.
“I have to make this community better for older people, give them value again and help volunteers find value in themselves.”
Jane plans to stay involved with the center as a volunteer and hopes to do more hospice work in her retirement. She is also putting the finishing touches on a book contrasting the experiences of young and old, called “Ageless Wisdom.”