Arts & Culture » Culture

Journey to the center


When Auter Love was a young man he loved to ride motorcycles. Not anymore. He’s 96, blind and frail.

“I had two or three of them,” says Love, who was born in Arkansas and raised in Battle Creek.

Love sits in an easy chair with his hands resting on a worn cane. His back is hunched; his head bowed toward the floor.

He is an amiable fellow who likes to listen to the radio and have the newspaper read to him. When inclined, he talks about the past. On a recent fall day, motorcycles are on his mind.

“I rode them since I was a little boy,” says Love.

He is one of about 100 seniors who attend the Activity Center at 3745 Cass Ave., Detroit. The center is a nonprofit organization that provides free daily activities to seniors and others who are developmentally disabled, mentally ill, have dementia or are simply frail. Cass United Methodist Church operates the center.

Auter Love, 96, keeps warm wrapped in a blanket.

The Rev. Faith Fowler, who heads the church, is the executive director of the nonprofit.

Fowler says a former pastor started the center in the 1970s after the state began deinstitutionalizing people with mental illnesses. Initially, it was open only two evenings a week. The day program was added later, says Fowler.

Many Activity Center patrons are referred by home-care workers. To qualify, seniors must be low-income and at least 55 years old, though some exceptions are made.

Freelance photographer Heather Rousseau regularly visits the center, photographing the seniors and staff. Many of the photos that appear in this essay were included in her thesis project for the College for Creative Studies, where she earned a bachelor’s of fine arts last spring. This is Rousseau’s second photo essay to appear in Metro Times. (Rousseau previously produced "A stable force," Metro Times, Oct. 16-22, 2002.)

She learned about the center when working on another photo project.

“I went in not sure what would happen,” says Rousseau of her first foray. “But in the back of my head I thought, ‘There are a lot of people in society who need extra help and it’s easy to forget about that.’ I wanted to bring that out to the public.”

Rousseau visited the center once or twice a week for six months.

“At first I felt I was invading their privacy,” she says. “It was a learning experience, how to be a part of their life. But as I grew more comfortable I got attached to some of the people.”

Love is one of them. Rousseau says she often found him wrapped in a blanket and listening to his radio.

Love attends the adult day-care center, where he and about a dozen other seniors with dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease listen to stories, work on puzzles, share a meal and socialize with staff and each other. Their room is comfortably furnished like a family den.

Love, neatly dressed in thick green corduroys and a green sweater, sits near Ethel Watkins, a day-care worker. Watkins teases Love about having a girlfriend. Love smiles.

Asked if he has a wife, Love says he doesn’t. Watkins reminds him that he had a wife who passed away.

He vaguely recalls working for the City of Battle Creek.

“I drove a truck and hung signs,” says Love, who lives with his niece. According to Watkins, Love cared for his niece when she was a girl.

Some days, when Love feels up to it, the staff helps him use crayons and coloring books.

Reva Varner, a program assistant, pulls out a folder containing Love’s work. It is filled with pages of colorful pictures. Varner holds Love’s hand as he moves a crayon across the page of a coloring book. “Some days he’ll work and some days he won’t,” she says of Love, who has been coming to the center about three years.

Love’s quiet demeanor is contrasted by Betty Fiero, an agile woman who, according to the day-care workers, suffers from schizophrenia. She loves to walk. She lives with a friend in a nearby apartment and has been coming to the center eight years, says Zetta Cummings, a program assistant. The center has two buses to transport seniors. But Fiero prefers to walk. The recent cool weather didn’t stop her.

“We had to give her a coat,” says Cummings.

Betty Fiero, 65, loves baby dolls and stuffed animals. She has been coming to the center for about eight years.

The center has given Fiero lots of coats and clothes, but she often gives them away. Fiero hugs Rousseau when she enters the room.

“Betty loves to sing,” she says and asks her to do so.

Though it’s early October, the petite, toothless woman with deep brown eyes rises from the table to briefly croon “Joy to the World.”

Asked her age, Fiero says, “Tell them I’m 52, but really I’m 35.”

Cummings says that Fiero is 65 and has family, but doesn’t know where they are.

From her jacket sleeve, Fiero pulls a small, worn panda bear.

“Fiero loves baby dolls and teddy bears,” says Cummings.

She is a chatty, gentle soul who likes hugs and to have her hand held. At a table, she works on a jigsaw puzzle and colors in a book.

“Everything she does has to have some orange in it,” says Varner as she displays Fiero’s work.

Her colorful drawings of pumpkins are displayed on the wall along with those done by Love and others.

On another wall is a photo of Fiero’s friend, Lillis Dorothy Martin, who died last spring at the age of 92. Martin also was a regular at the center. Rousseau took many photos of Martin, including the one on the wall.

Lillis Dorothy Martin (l) died at 92 last spring; here, she'd shown hugging adult day-care worker Ethel Watkins.

“That’s my friend,” says Fiero, pointing at the photo. “She kept me company. Sometimes I’d be down in the dumps and she’d sit with me.”


In a larger room, seniors with developmental disabilities gather at several tables. For six hours each weekday, they sing, play bingo and do yoga; they also share a hot meal. The staff takes the seniors on outings. Some are as simple as a trek to the dollar store. But there are also more ambitious trips, including the annual Labor Day walk across the Mackinac Bridge.

Fowler says the budget for the senior program this year is $400,000. It is funded by government grants and donations from corporations and individuals.

This year the center lost $80,000 in federal grants because Detroit showed a decrease in its senior population. Fowler had to eliminate a program that allowed staff to take homebound seniors to the doctor, shop for them and perform other tasks.

Several seniors gravitate to Rousseau, begging to have their photos taken. She says hello to Frank Messina, who is developmentally disabled. Messina likes coming to the center because it makes him feel useful. The 42-year-old helps mop floors, take out the trash and unload food from the bus. The staff rewards him with a soft drink or other treat.

Frank Messina likes yoga, bingo and baseball.

It’s important that program enrollees have a sense of purpose, says aging services director Linda MacQueen.

MacQueen says the center plans to start a used-clothing store. Clients will sort, price and sell garments to people in the neighborhood.

A basic cooking class was recently created.

“They will have a role in helping bake a cake,” says MacQueen. “Most don’t have that experience.”

Messina says his interests are yoga, bingo and baseball. “I want to go to a Tigers game for my birthday next year,” he says. “The Tigers are my boys.”

Messina sits with his legs crossed in the large room where about a dozen others watch a movie, Godzilla, on a large-screen TV. Some appear interested in the film. But Messina won’t watch it.

“I don’t like movies anymore,” he says. “Too scary.”

The solidly built man with glasses and salt-and-pepper hair gets up to retrieve a cup of water. When he returns, he is crying.

“I can’t take it anymore,” he complains.

His tears dissipate when he’s reminded that he will go home soon to visit with his family.

Messina, like many of the patrons, lives in an adult foster-care home with other developmentally disabled adults. The facilities are often privately owned and run.

Center patron Richard Weber lives in a foster-care home in Detroit. His girlfriend, Joyce Frantz, lives in one across the street from his. Weber and Frantz sit at a table perusing Better Homes and Gardens magazines. They have been a couple for 20 years, according to Frantz.

“They’re inseparable,” says Rousseau as she takes photos of them.

Frantz, 59, appears to have a remarkable memory. She recites her and Weber’s birthdates. She recites lots of dates.

Frantz says she has been coming to the center for about 18 months.

Without prompting, she blurts, “We’re Roman Catholics.” They attend St. Jude’s Church in Detroit.

“I’ll be a eucharistic minister 12 years on Dec. 3, 2003,” says Frantz, explaining that Weber has been an usher for seven years.

They seem much like a married couple. Frantz often finishes Weber’s sentences or interrupts to correct him. Weber seems used to it.

They appear to function better than some other center patrons. Both have held several jobs, which is how they met, explains Frantz.

Richard Weber and Joyce Frantz enjoy a dance.

“I first met him in 1979; then on Nov. 11, 1983, we became boyfriend and girlfriend,” she says.

The couple recently held jobs at a grocery store; Frantz bagged groceries and Weber worked in the bakery stockroom.

Asked what she likes about Weber, Frantz says, “I’m in love with him. I have a crush on him, and if we got married he would make a good husband and I would make a good wife.”

Most developmentally disabled people don’t experience such milestones as school graduations, marriages or parenthood. That’s why the staff and church members stage an annual pageant for them.

The first Saturday in December for the past eight years, clients have promenaded in donated evening gowns and tuxedos. It gives them a chance to shine for their friends and families, explains Fowler.

Some sing or recite a poem at the pageant; others simply stroll before the 350 or so people who attend.

When a staff member came up with the idea for the pageant, Fowler had her doubts.

“At first, I wasn’t persuaded,” she says. “After the first one, I knew it was gold.”

Fowler says the pageant is important because most developmentally disabled people don’t go to the prom, learn to drive, marry or have kids.

“It also gives the community a chance to shower them with affection,” she says.

Watkins, who sits with Love, likes her job. “I’m helping people who are looking for someone to give them a hug or smile,” Watkins says.

Love chimes in that he likes the center because “I just like to have somewhere to go to.”

Fred Parsh, 60, has been going to the center for about two years.

Rachel Cannon (l) plays ball with Gary Edwards, Leonard Knight and others.

Heather Rousseau is a Detroit-area freelance photographer. E-mail [email protected]

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