Gaby Ashy spent a lot of time as a banker wishing he could be painting. Retirement has liberated the artist. • Sitting at an easel on a recent weekday morning, the 73-year-old Ashy dabbed at the mostly completed portrait of a woman he found in a magazine. • "It is really like the main thing in my life,'' said Ashy, who figures he has sold about 40 pictures over a lifetime of painting when he could. "I just love it so much.'' • Gerry Rivera's doctor told him to find something to do to reduce stress, so he enrolled in a crocheting and knitting class. • "Look at me, I'm like I'm asleep,'' said a smiling Rivera, 48, his hands working the needles as a scarf takes shape. • Rivers and Ashy are regulars at the Life Enrichment Center, a single-story, yellow and teal building that houses what is said to be one of the few adult activity centers in the nation not run by a city or county government.
The key word is activity, said executive director Ronna Metcalf, noting this isn't like most adult centers.
"We are by far much more active, more geared toward lifelong learning,'' she said. "We don't do bingo here.''
The 32-year-old Life Enrichment Center drew praise in 2011 in a national report by Partners for Livable Communities, a group that promotes using cultural organizations to engage America's aging and immigrant populations. Funded by the MetLife Foundation, the report cited 20 cultural arts programs in six cities across the country, including Atlanta and Chicago.
For varying fees, most under $100, people can take courses in drawing, painting, digital photography, contemporary dance, creative writing and health and fitness. There's also tai chi, the ancient Chinese martial art that Rick and Nancy Rogers find so invigorating.
The Town 'N Country couple, both 75, have been taking the tai chi class at the center for 10 years.
"It just gives you a sense of peacefulness,'' Rick Rogers said. "Once you learn the postures, it's so graceful and flowing you can actually, as the years go by, . . . feel the energy in your body.''
The Life Enrichment Center began as the brainchild of people from five local churches, according to Metcalf.
"They canvassed a 2-square-mile area, trying to determine if there was a need for an organization for older adults in this area," she said.
They got a grant from the federal Administration on Aging to buy the building, plus a 10-year stipend to help the center become self-sufficient. It isn't affiliated with any church or religion.
Grants, corporate sponsorships, donations, fundraisers and course fees have kept the center running, though staying solvent is always a struggle, Metcalf said.
"We're a typical nonprofit. We don't have any money,'' she added.
Though none will get rich, the center's instructors tend to stay, said Metcalf, whose executive director duties include taking out the trash. She's been on the job 13 years.
"It's the passion. We all enjoy what we're doing. We think it's important what we're doing.'
Instructor Tim Gibbons has rotated between the Life Enrichment Center and the Hyde Park Recreation Center for three decades, teaching varied forms of art — drawing, painting, multimedia, collage and prints. He works in one medium or another every day.
"It's just something that puts me in my happy world," he said.
While some of his students may be more skilled than others, he views them all as artists because they all create. For many, it's been a long-delayed desire.
"I think most of them had the drive to do it, but family got in the way, life got in the way.''
To student Howard Kanter, an 88-year-old World War II veteran and D-Day survivor, Gibbons is "the greatest guy in the world.''
Kanter, copying a stylized group portrait he found in a magazine, enjoys the camaraderie of the class, which he likens to a family. He's been taking art at the center for about three years.
"I started doing this after my wife passed away,'' he said. "It gave me an opportunity to be active and not be lonely.''
Jayne Lisbeth found her inner biographer in the life-writing class. Lisbeth praises her teacher, Paula Stahel, saying her writing course is the best she's ever taken.
"I have to say, I know my writing has improved enormously through this class,'' she said.
Lisbeth, 63, is one of 18 students whose work is included in an anthology, Pages of My Life, which is sold through the center. She thought that embarking on a memoir was a pretentious notion, she says, but she focused on stories about her childhood nanny and visits to Fort Lauderdale and found she enjoyed it. She realized, too, that it's a worthwhile project. "No one knows our life story. If I don't write it down, my kids won't either.''
Whether it's writing a memoir, painting a picture, taking a fitness class or knitting a scarf, it's a worthwhile project — especially for the person doing it, Metcalf explained.
"You're staying active mentally, physically and socially,'' she said, "and that's what keeps people aging positively.''
Philip Morgan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3435.