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The Center presents Outstanding Senior Citizen awards

The recipients of this year’s Crow Wing County Outstanding Senior Citizen Awards were revealed at The Center’s picnic at Lum Park. The coronavirus pandemic last year prevented a picnic from being held for last year’s award winners.

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Donna Wheeler of Brainerd and Kenneth Saumer smile for a photo Wednesday, July 21, 2021, at a picnic in Lum Park in Brainerd after they received plaques for the Crow Wing County's Outstanding Senior Citizens Award. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

It takes more than a pandemic to keep Donna Wheeler and Kenneth Saumer from doing good.

The dynamic duo and spry seniors received the Outstanding Senior Citizen Award given annually to a nominated man and a woman in Crow Wing County.

“I had no clue … but I feel proud to receive such an honor — and it is an honor because I love volunteering,” Saumer said after the award presentation.

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Kenneth Saumer (center) of East Gull Lake receives congratulations from well-wishers Wednesday, July 21, 2021, at Lum Park for receiving the Outstanding Senior Citizen Award. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

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They received the awards at a picnic in Lum Park in Brainerd surrounded by other seniors enjoying a hotdog lunch and live music Wednesday, July 21.

“I was totally caught by surprise,” Wheeler said afterward of the recognition. “I think it’s an honor and anybody who gets it should be very proud.”

RELATED: Brainerd man receives Outstanding Senior Volunteer of the Year award
DeAnn Barry, executive director of The Center, a Brainerd-based senior-focused organization on Kingwood Street, was the emcee and award presenter.

“We have a lot of organizations that exist because of nominees, because of volunteers, and The Center is one of them,” Barry said before the award presentation. “We wouldn’t have survived COVID or post-COVID If we didn’t have the volunteers to utilize.”

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DeAnn Barry, the executive director of The Center, a Brainerd-based senior-focused facility, announces this year's winners for Outstanding Senior Citizen at a pavilion picnic at Lum Park on Wednesday, July 21, 2021. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

The Minnesota State Fair, the Minnesota State Fair Foundation and the Minnesota Federation of County Fairs sponsor the annual awards that are given to a man and a woman age 70 or older in each county.

Out of a pool of nominees from each county in the state, winners are chosen for their outstanding commitment to community service since reaching the age of 65, according to officials.

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Volunteer Lowell Johnson of Fort Ripley was recognized as one of two Outstanding Senior Citizens in the state at the 2019 Minnesota State Fair. Two Minnesota seniors will be recognized as Minnesota’s Outstanding Senior Citizens on Seniors Day at the Leinie Lodge Bandshell.

RELATED: Brainerd's Outstanding Citizen of the Year goes to literacy lover
Essentia Health Volunteer Supervisor Deb Anderson nominated Wheeler of Brainerd and Saumer of East Gull Lake for the county-level award.

“Donna is a very dedicated volunteer. She comes and volunteers at the hospital up to three times a week and does numerous jobs for the gift shop,” Anderson wrote in her letter of support.

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The awards for Outstanding Senior Citizens are given to a Crow Wing County man and woman age 70 and older. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

Wheeler was a teaching assistant and worked in retail before she was 65. Her “kind heart” and “listening ear” were among the attributes that were cited in her nomination form.

“Pre-COVID, she would enter every single item in the gift shop into the computer so it can be scanned in the counter. That takes talent and computer skills and she has learned how to do that,” Anderson wrote.

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Most people Wheeler’s age are not willing to learn how to become proficient in using a computer, according to Anderson, but the 80-year-old volunteer also unpacks, marks and displays the merchandise in the hospital gift shop.

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“During this past year, she has also stepped up to help with the vaccine clinics and has helped direct thousands of people through the clinic,” Anderson said. “She was fearless and did so with such enthusiasm that made everyone coming in for their shot relaxed and welcomed.”

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Donna Wheeler (center) of Brainerd smiles for a photo Wednesday, July 21, 2021, with her plaque for the Outstanding Senior Citizen Award. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

The elderly make up almost 25% of the volunteer population, according to Aging in Place, a resource for seniors and their families to learn more about the specific aspects of aging in place.

“I think it’s a good way to meet people, to do something worthwhile and to make better use of your time,” said Wheeler, who serves on the auxiliary board and assists in equipment purchasing decisions for the hospital “for the care and comfort of the patients.”

RELATED: Reynolds named Outstanding Educator of the Year for dedication to school district
Saumer worked as a state patrol dispatcher before he was 65, but the 79-year-old delivered the mail, and escorted patients and visitors as a hospital volunteer.

“I certainly hope to get back to do some more volunteering as soon as all the restrictions are lifted — and hopefully that will be soon,” Saumer said after receiving his award.

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Seniors enjoy a picnic Wednesday, July 21, 2021, at one of Lum Park's pavilions in Brainerd hosted by The Center during which the recipients of this year's Outstanding Senior Citizen Award were named. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

Saumer also assisted with blood collection drives and at Trinity Lutheran Church’s soup kitchen and ushered at the Lakes Area Music Festival.

Barry said at the park, “Today, it was really nice to be able to not only gather for our annual picnic and celebrate just being together, being able to be together safely — not have to wear masks — and just to celebrate each other’s company."

Judges’ selection criteria

  • Diversity of accomplishments.

  • How this person has touched the lives of other people in the community.

  • Total scope of activities, including years of service and time commitment.

  • Variety of services performed and involvement in organizations.

  • Quantity of accomplishments and amount of service after age 65.

  • Quality of activities, especially innovative services.

  • Geographic area covered by their service.

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at frank.lee@brainerddispatch.com . Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchFL .

I cover the community of Wadena, Minn., and write articles for the Wadena Pioneer Journal weekly newspaper owned by Forum Communications Co.
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