An Uproar in Winlock: Frustrated Seniors Say Centers Not Reopening Fast Enough

Tensions Build as Seniors Yearn For Socialization


The Lewis County Seniors nonprofit is on its way to reopening its six centers, finalizing a COVID-19 safety plan that could open the door to in-person activities as soon as this month.

But in Winlock, some seniors say it’s not fast enough, and a recent uproar has led to hate mail, a padlock on the senior center and fledgling plans to secede from the umbrella nonprofit.

Lewis County Seniors Vice President Carolyn Brock said seniors from the Twin Cities, Toledo, Morton, Packwood and Pe Ell are also clamoring to resume in-person enrichment activities.

“Those seniors want their buildings open too,” Brock told The Chronicle. “They just haven’t tried to instigate a coup.”

Last week at the Rowdy Rooster, a meeting between Brock and some Winlock seniors went sour. The meetup was preceded by Facebook posts, one asking participants to “picket if possible.”

“Who has the key to the door of the senior centers?” one commenter asked. “If the authorities come to close it we could get 2,000 people to stand around the building and keep it open.”

Glenda Forga, the nonprofit’s executive director, said she was aware that frustrated seniors had asked to meet with a Lewis County Seniors representative. But online chatter showed the meeting felt high-stakes to many seniors.

“Next thing we know it’s a full-blown rally,” she said, referencing online chatter. “I was actually scared for (Brock). I was freaking out.”

Forga said she’d already received messages delivering personal blows over the issue.

“I’m devastated. I’m devastated by the threats,” she said. “Lord knows if I could throw open those doors today, I would do it.”

Regulated by the regional Area Agency on Aging, the nonprofit is still finalizing its safety plan. Under that plan, the centers would reopen on a rotating schedule, likely one center per day.

It’s the process most senior nutrition programs are undergoing right now, Forga said.

Brock said she tried to relay that to Winlock seniors during the meeting. But many weren’t satisfied. Von McDougall, a Winlock Senior Center patron for 10 years, said he didn’t feel like he got answers.

Things were made worse when participants learned Winlock site manager Lindsay Giberson had been fired.

“As soon as that information hit the meeting, that didn’t help,” Winlock Mayor Brandon Svenson recalled.

Forga declined to comment on the exact reason Giberson — a favorite among many Winlock seniors — was let go, although she said Giberson’s communication around reopening the center did not work in her favor.

“Unfortunately, we had someone from the inside take it upon themselves to start rallying the troops,” Forga said. She later added that Giberson has “fabulous skills, and she loves the seniors. We wish her nothing but the best in the future.”

Giberson declined to comment, but has since decried her termination online.

“I’m a caregiver,” Giberson wrote on Facebook over the weekend. “I know just how important socialization is to maintaining a will to live. I am not an admin wishing to stay locked up in my office not interacting with the seniors.”

McDougall said Giberson was “the best thing that ever happened to the place since I got here.”

He holds a key to the Winlock senior center, also called the Olequa Senior Center, but recently discovered it no longer works.

Forga confirmed the nonprofit locked up the facility to prevent frustrated seniors from entering. After word that some seniors planned to open the center for a coffee meetup — despite the center’s lack of a safety plan — Forga said her “hands got tied.”

“For some reason, Winlock believes the center belongs to them,” Lewis County Seniors President Ron Averill told The Chronicle.

The facility is owned by the county and is on a 20-year lease with Lewis County Seniors, according to Brock.

Now, seniors are looking for alternative meeting spots. Svenson has given the group a key to Winlock’s community center building — a commendable effort to problem-solve, according to County Commissioner Lindsey Pollock.

Mildred Wood, 95, said she was happy with the mayor’s offer. And even though seniors would prefer the Winlock senior center, Wood said she and some of her friends are looking at other locations, and are thinking about breaking off from the nonprofit.

Financial constraints pose a barrier, but “right now, most people think it is (viable),” she said. “We’d be our own boss, you might say.”

Lewis County Seniors leadership will look over its safety plan later this week, and Forga doesn’t anticipate any issues in getting the local AAA to give it the thumbs-up. Besides the extensive plan, Forga and Averill said the main barrier to reopening will be shifting from their emergency nutrition program — which exploded over the pandemic and is taking up staffers’ time — to regular operations.

“A lot of people really need those meals, and we don’t want to just shut them off and open up centers because some people want that to happen,” Brock said.

While the nonprofit has been praised for pivoting during the pandemic and delivering meals to hundreds of now-isolated clients, some seniors say reopening should take priority.

“I can go without the meals,” said McDougall, who lives alone after his wife passed away. “I don’t know what the answer is. I just want to get back to visiting people two to three times a week. Because my cat won’t talk to me.”