South Charlotte

A special place to keep on learning

The plated sign on the door says "Youth Café."

Inside the room, six people are huddled around table, an iPad between them.

"Heard about the new Facebook data center in North Carolina?" one man asks. Conversation then turns to cloud servers.

It's a scene you could find on a college campus rife with 18- to 22-year-olds.

But at Shepherd's Center South, the audience trends older - say, 55- to 99-year-olds.

A national interfaith, community-based nonprofit whose mission is "seniors helping seniors," Shepherd's Center uses programs and group activities to help senior citizens keep their minds sharp and stay independent as long as possible.

There are two other Shepherd's Centers in Charlotte - one in east Charlotte, one uptown. About 10 years ago, a center was established in south Charlotte.

Shepherd's Center South is now made up of residents from south Charlotte, Mint Hill, Matthews and Pineville.

"Most seniors don't really want to travel more than five miles out of the radius of their home," said Shepherd's Center South Executive Director Michelle Hitselberger. "We want to make sure we're providing similar programs in all the territories."

Shepherd's Center South is basically a senior center without a building. Area businesses, churches and other nonprofits offer to host the events, while Hitselberger and volunteers do the programming.

A donor- and sponsor-driven organization, Shepherd's Center South doesn't charge annual membership fees, but seniors pay for field trips or six- to eight-week sessions.

Most cost $30 to $50.

The current six-week session called "Adventures in Learning" meets on Wednesdays at St. Stephen United Methodist, along Sardis Road, and includes breakfast and coffee, a guest speaker, lunch (for an additional $6) and two breakout groups. Topics include: using an iPad, couponing secrets, jewelry-making, digital photography, photo editing and history classes taught by retired college professors. A couple weeks ago, a local chef taught a class on the secrets to mouth-watering spaghetti squash.

"When you're getting older, depression and loneliness and isolation creep in, and you don't even realize it," said Hitselberger. "We bring this community together."

"This is where old friends meet," said Beth Coleman, 81, who eats lunch beside her high school friend, Katherine McAdams, 81, who chats about her Facebook page.

Both attended the now-defunct Central High School in Charlotte.

On Coleman's other side is petite May Taylor, who grins as Coleman dotes on Taylor's long red Cadillac with the Carolina Panthers sticker on the back.

She looks - and acts - younger than her 99 years.

"I don't care how old you may be, there's always something new to learn," she said. "Always."

McAdams and Taylor's favorite classes are about history.

"Sometimes we do the Crusades, sometimes we march behind Joan of Arc," said McAdams. This session's lectures are on General Sherman's March during the Civil War and the Mediterranean, "the cross point of society."

Taylor never misses the history classes.

"I am a little hard of hearing, so I always make it a point to sit up in the front row," she said.

Hitselberger took the part-time executive director position with Shepherd's Center South after she was laid off from the Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation department during a round of budget cuts.

She had supervised senior adult recreation.

Before that, she spent nearly a decade as the director of recreation and senior adult ministries at Matthews United Methodist Church.

In her eight-month tenure, Hitselberger has already created a program called "Home Sweet Home," where senior citizens take driving tours of area retirement centers, so if they're looking to downsize, they know their options.

Her latest undertaking is a program she's starting called "Aging in Place," where volunteers help senior citizens get to doctor's appointments and the grocery store.

She'd also like to set up light exercise classes and even ballroom dance.

The seniors "are excited because...they're learning things and they're also able to engage with other folks and make new friends, get out in the community," said Hitselberger. "That's big on my heart."