The warm, resonant melody of “God Bless America” swelled and filled the Southside Community Center as the senior Serenaders rehearsed for Project Joy’s 50th anniversary celebration.
The 60-member choir is just one of 37 nonprofit entertainment groups.
Founded in 1972 by Sinto Senior Center Director Marian Herzer, Project Joy is an innovative arts program showcasing the talents of people aged 50 and over.
Herzer launched the program with a $2,000 grant from the Washington State Office on Aging and a matching grant from the city of Spokane. By 1975, it had grown from 43 members in four groups to over 200 members and 22 performing groups, and the National Council on Aging selected Project Joy as one of the nation’s top outstanding senior programs.
“Age does not stop creative growth or prevent us from serving others,” said Herzer, who died in 2019.
Currently, the organization includes 200 volunteer performers and is still partially funded by City of Spokane Parks and Recreation. Project Joy acts perform at area retreat centers, assisted living facilities and community centers.
Kendall Eminger and Wenda Mackey took a break from a recent rehearsal to discuss why they love being part of the Senior Serenaders.
“Some people do aerobics,” Eminger said. “For me, singing is an aerobic activity. When I get home, I’m relaxed and smiling.
In addition to singing with the Serenaders, the retired music teacher leads another Project Joy group, Les Femmes, an all-female vocal ensemble.
Mackey said that after not being able to rehearse or perform during COVID-19, she relishes the connection with her choir mates and the community.
“Everywhere we perform, people are so grateful,” she said. “Seeing the joy we bring to others is the best part.”
Project Joy director Harlan Henderson hadn’t even heard of the organization when he retired in 2014 after a long career as a vocal music teacher for the Cheney School District.
“I got a call from a friend saying Senior Serenaders needed a new director,” he recalled.
He agreed to lead the choir and in 2018 was named executive director of Project Joy.
“I used to work with high school kids, but found I loved working with older people,” Henderson said. “I was blown away by their dynamism.”
Along with larger musical groups like the Serenaders and the Project Joy Symphony Orchestra, the organization has dozens of smaller ensembles, as well as individual performers.
Diana Krebs leads the 24 member Minstrels.
“We’re like the minstrels who traveled from town to town in medieval times,” she said. “We do songs, poetry and instrumentals.”
“When I took over, we were doing 20s and 30s songs, now we’re doing 50s and 60s songs.”
Paradocs is one of Project Joy’s newest acts. Retired doctors Craig and Sima Smentek perform piano solos and duets, and Craig sings while Sima accompanies him.
“Well, I sing a song,” she said. ”I can’t help loving this man of mine.’ “Throughout their medical careers, they have never worked in the same hospital at the same time.
“We love doing this together,” Sima said. “We are not professionals, just people who love music. It’s really the joy of the project for us.
Not all artists in the organization are voice artists. Tap Grandmas dazzle crowds with their whimsical footwork, and Jeanne Goss is a puppeteer. She, Archie the dog and Bobo the gorilla delight people in assisted living facilities.
“Archie barks and I interpret for him,” she said. “I can’t sing or dance, but I have a great imagination!”
A former elementary school teacher, Goss said she “just flew” and told stories through her puppets.
“It’s so much fun,” she said. “I entertain, that’s what I do. If I can get a smile or a laugh, it’s worth it to me.
Henderson said the 50th anniversary celebration at Myrtle Woldson Performing Arts Center in Gonzaga on May 15 is an opportunity to showcase the volunteer performers who give so much to our community. He hopes the show will encourage others to join Project Joy.
“We would like to have more community involvement. We hope to return to our usual 25 to 30 performances each month,” he said. “What an amazing idea to give seniors a place to have community with others while serving them with their talents.”
He is proud that Project Joy continues its mission: “To serve and grow in the spirit of joy”.
You can reach Cindy Hval at [email protected]