Lending a Helping Hand
At the Brunswick Center at Calabash, Director Courtney Bledsoe and her staff help seniors in the southwestern part of Brunswick County have the chance to stay fit, participate in an array of activities and eat nutritious meals.
Born in Ohio and raised in Indiana, Courtney Bledsoe, director of the Brunswick Center at Calabash, grew up learning the value of caring for others. She was the second of five children and says, “The role of being an older sister taught me responsibility, patience and the importance of setting a good example. God blessed me with a wonderful family.”
Bledsoe worked full-time as an event coordinator and general manager of a restaurant while earning an associate’s degree in business administration. Those years helped hone her managerial and organizational skills.
She met her husband, Benjamin James “B.J.”, working at this same restaurant. After marrying in 2012, they relocated to Wilmington. B.J. started working full-time as an X-ray technician, and Courtney continued working as an event coordinator while also teaching yoga classes in the evenings and weekends in Wilmington.
After purchasing land in the Holden Beach area in 2017, the couple moved to southern Brunswick County. Bledsoe began seeking ways to serve her new community. She discovered Brunswick Senior Resources, Inc. (BSRI) while searching for volunteer opportunities teaching adaptive yoga for older adults. BSRI’s vision of Making a Difference resonated so strongly with Bledsoe that she decided to apply for the position of assistant director of the Brunswick Center at Leland and was hired in March 2018.
“I learned so much about aging, adult services and the operational workings of senior centers in my first few months of working for BSRI, thanks to my passionate co-workers,” Bledsoe says. After a brief transfer to the Brunswick Center at Supply as the assistant director, she was appointed director of the Brunswick Center at Calabash soon after it opened on July 31, 2018.
Before that there were four BSRI centers — in Leland, Shallotte, Southport and Supply. The Brunswick Center at Calabash, the fifth center, opened to serve the growing needs of seniors in southern Brunswick County. This center replaced the BSRI–operated nutrition site at the Calabash Covenant Presbyterian Church in Sunset Beach.
“By the end of 2019, the Brunswick Center at Calabash had almost 3,000 active participants and served a daily congregate lunch for about 90 people,” Bledsoe says. “As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and the demand for the many services BSRI offers, we are serving up to 150 hot lunches daily.”
BSRI began offering the curbside lunch services on March 16 after they closed their buildings to the public. The first couple of weeks they distributed lunch Monday through Friday, one meal per senior. They then changed to a once-a-week pickup on Mondays, with each participant picking up five lunches. This limited exposure and risk for staff, volunteers and participants during the pandemic.
They also run Meals on Wheels routes daily for their 70 homebound clients in the Calabash area. Similarly, they went from daily deliveries to twice a week, offering multiple meals per day.
“Like so many, we have had to get creative and adapt to the ever-changing circumstances of the pandemic,” Bledsoe says. “Our team of dedicated and hardworking staff and volunteers have come together to make it possible to continue these important programs.”
Besides Bledsoe, the center staff includes assistant director Holley Norris, case manager Rene Tarquinio, administrative assistants Ellen Kleinerman and Carol Schotter and cook Tyler Hardy. The Center at Calabash also has more than 100 active volunteers assisting in various departments and programs. Typical programs include exercise classes, educational programs, art classes, health promotion presentations, social events and visits with Bella the therapy dog.
“As a senior center director, continuing education in the field of aging has been crucial in developing the best program possible for our participants,” Bledsoe says. She recently finished the Leadership in Wellness Management program with the International Council on Active Aging (ICAA) and is in the process of completing the 6 Module Program with the Ann Johnson Institute for Senior Center Management.
“The emphasis is on ‘active aging’ whereby each individual is encouraged to maintain good physical, social, spiritual and mental health as they get older,” Bledsoe says.
Bledsoe notes that her previous employer of 10 years, Rick Burchell, taught her how to lead a team of employees. “Doing that well means knowing every aspect of each role I supervise, leading with compassion and understanding the employee’s point of view,” she explains. “I would never ask an employee to do a task I wouldn’t do myself.”
Bledsoe recites the Sanskrit mantra “Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu,” which means: “May all beings everywhere be happy and free, and may the thoughts, words, and actions of my own life contribute in some way to that happiness and to that freedom for all.” She adds, “This mantra always brings me back to my purpose and brings me peace in stressful times.”
One of her favorite books, The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom by don Miguel Ruiz offers practical advice to managers everywhere. “Based on ancient Toltec wisdom,” Bledsoe says, “the essence of The Four Agreements is: Be impeccable with your word. Don’t take anything personally. Don’t make assumptions. Always do your best. Remembering these things when interacting with people helps me greatly.”
In her spare time Bledsoe and her husband enjoy being outdoors — going to the beach, paddleboarding, practicing yoga and spending time with their two hound dogs, Jake and Zeke, which they rescued from local animal shelters. Bledsoe also enjoys live music and cooking vegetarian meals for friends and family.
As the director of the Brunswick Center at Calabash, she says her job is to make sure that things run as smoothly as possible.
“There is no ‘typical day’ on my job and that’s a good thing for me,” she says. “As busy as it might be sometimes, I come home energized because helping people is so rewarding.
“As a leader my job is to listen to others, to collaborate with my team and to create the best possible environment for the people we serve. I believe we are truly making a difference.”
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10050 Beach Drive SW, Calabash