COLUMBIA — Some senior citizens are fighting to keep the Health Connection gym from being shut down. The fitness center, run by MU, has been around for 19 years but is scheduled to close June 30.
The center, located at Stephens College at 1507 E. Broadway, is closing because of budget constraints. In the past, the Health Connection received research grants, but those grants are no longer available.
The lack of money did not stop a group of members from gathering at the center Friday and Monday mornings around a plate of cookies to discuss the campaign to prevent the center's closure.
Sue Fenton, 79, has been going to the Health Connection for 16 years. "There's no place like it in town," she said.
Bill Robinson, 62, has been going to the center for four years and said he appreciates the extra health care available at the facility. There is a registered nurse on site every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning to help "keep an eye on everyone," Robinson said. An exercise specialist is always nearby to monitor the members' workouts and see that nothing goes wrong. The nurses and the exercise specialist check the members' blood pressures, heart rates and oxygen saturation before and after working out.
At the Health Connection, "they give you that little extra," Robinson said. He has had two strokes and has diabetes. Several times, the nurses at the center have caught him with blood sugar too low for exercise.
Irene Sackreiter, the gym's manager, said no other fitness center in Columbia has the same kind of service. The next best facility is Boone Hospital Center's Wellaware, which has a cardiac rehabilitation program. But Sackreiter said the fee there is more expensive than the Health Connection's fee of $37 per month, or $27 per month for retired employees of MU or retired or current employees of Stephens College.
Health Connection members say what makes the center unique is that, unlike other gyms in town, it doesn't cater to the younger population.
Rita Bunn, 76, and her husband have been members of the Health Connection since the mid-1980s. Her cardiologist said she must exercise, but because she has asthma, she cannot just go for a walk. She said she would be at risk going to other gyms that do not have a nurse available.
In addition to the medical benefits of the center, members say they enjoy the psychological benefits of a good laugh with their peers — what Fenton refers to as the "social hour," though it happens any time the center is open. A conversation one Friday morning started with the subject of kitchen remodeling and then moved effortlessly to health problems as another member joined the discussion.
The center's 320 members are organizing a letter-writing campaign to officials, including Gov. Jay Nixon, UM System President Gary Forsee, Dean of the School of Health Professions Richard Oliver and U.S. and state representatives and senators.
Frances Martin, 74, said she would suggest in her letters that MU find an unused university building to house the Health Connection. One of the financial constraints on the center is the rent payment at its current location.
Members including Maxine Hevein are adamant that the Health Connection needs to stay open and many of them seem ready to fight for it.
"I think it's a place that's needed and needed badly," Hevein said.