University City

Her mission: helping seniors enjoy life

More than once, Melinda Ervin has flown the red eye into Charlotte and driven straight from the airport to Varick Renaissance Center, near Sugar Creek Road.

Inside, she'll spread cranberry-colored tablecloths over a half-dozen round tables, set up a gourmet coffee station and place floral centerpieces throughout one of the large meeting rooms, often while still in her flight attendant uniform.

For two years on Mondays and Wednesdays, Ervin, who works for US Airways, has operated Living Life Fully, a program for active adults 55 and older. It's the realization of a lifelong dream that grew roots for her in childhood.

Ervin, raised in Charlotte, has wonderful memories of her grandparents - two people who showered her and her siblings constantly with attention and love.

"They were wonderful people," said Ervin. "My grandmother always had a pot on the stove. If anyone came by, she would bring out the dishes. My grandfather, he walked me to the bus stop every day until the eighth grade."

As they aged, she remembers the joy they felt after joining a senior program in their community.

"When they came home, they were always so happy," said Ervin. "I said one day I would grow up and have a place, and they could come to my place."

Her grandparents died years before she was old enough to make that dream a reality. But she never forgot the idea.

"I believe God planted the seed in me when I was small, because I've always known that I would do this one day. I've never had any doubt."

At first, Ervin was afraid no one would be interested. In the weeks before the program's debut, she went everywhere she thought seniors would congregate. She struck up conversations in Wal-Mart and Sam's Club. She left fliers at retirement communities. She even knocked on a few doors.

"I was pretty nervous the night before, because I thought I was doing this and no one would come," Ervin said.

But they did, and most say it's because this program and the lady who runs it are different from others.

Elizabeth Samuels always balked when her daughter would suggest she join some kind of senior group.

"I said, 'Honey, I don't want to be with those old people,' " said Samuels, a Charlotte native who has kept active since retiring as a school principal in 1991. "I have young ways."

Not until she joined Living Life Fully did she discover how much fun the right program could be.

Mondays and Wednesdays, upbeat, jazzy music flits through the room as dozens of seniors supply its accompaniment with laughter, conversation and often the shuffling of card decks.

Besides card games, they also play Scrabble, dominoes, Wii sports and bingo.

At noon, a four-star chef prepares a meal just for them. Together they enjoy lasagna, beef brisket, healthy salads and rich soups. Ervin worked with the chef to keep the cost at a bargain price.

"He provides meals for $5. No tax. No tips," she said.

For Johnnie Mae Tolliver, who lives off Harrisburg Road, the program has been her motivation to get out of the house after her husband died.

"Coming here has really helped me a lot," said Tolliver. ""I went to one other facility. It wasn't like this. The ladies here uplift me."

Samuels said, "We are now like family."