Firefighters Monday paid for and served a Thanksgiving dinner of home-cooked turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy to dozens of happy regulars at the Ashland Senior Center.

Firefighters Monday paid for and served a Thanksgiving dinner of home- cooked turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy to dozens of happy regulars at the Ashland Senior Center.

"We wanted to do something nice for the seniors," said David Shepherd, president of the Ashland Firefighters Association. "We all chipped in, no government money, and paid for a caterer to do it, all homemade — and we hope it becomes an annual tradition."

The early Thanksgiving, which came on the 36th birthday of the senior center, was the brainchild of Shepherd and Ashland Fire Chief John Karns, who said when he was chief in Beverly Hills, Calif., he saw the value of getting firefighters more involved in the community and "giving back."

"It gives us a chance to meet citizens on a different level than we do on emergency calls," said Karns.

The seniors were clearly delighted.

"It's absolutely wonderful," said Donna Wright. "I can't say enough good about the firefighters and rescue people."

"It's a tremendously great thing, really appreciate it," said Jim Galt. "We were all looking forward to it."

"It's warm, not cold," said Ilse Foreny. "And it's a good selection, a typical Thanksgiving with white and dark meat."

City Councilman David Chapman, liaison with the center, said he enjoyed seeing the firefighters out in the community.

"It's nice to see them when you don't need them (for an emergency)," he said.

Matt Freiheit, secretary-treasurer of the firefighters association, noted, "Every day it's 9-1-1 calls for sick and injured people, so this opportunity to socialize is really a festive occasion for us."

During its nearly four decades, the senior center has been about volunteerism and giving, said director Christine Dodson, noting it has three part-time employees and 45 volunteers, including most of the seniors having their early Thanksgiving dinner.

"It's nice to treat them for a change," said Dodson. "Our mission is to create an environment where people can contribute. The faces change, but the mission remains the same."

The center, on Homes Avenue next to the Daniel Meyer Pool, has operated mostly on city funding since it was created by the City Council in 1973.

It operates under the Parks and Recreation Department on an annual budget of $125,000, said Dodson, with some grants from the federal Older Americans Act, the Rogue Valley Council of Governments and the Ashland Soroptimist Club.

The center was created to meet the needs of seniors who had lost connections with family, co-workers, lodges and church congregations and were "in very poor health, disconnected and dying in their homes" — often not able or motivated to cook for themselves, said Kay Stein, director of the center from 1977 to 1985.

"Back then, we were part of the effort to seek out or outreach to people in their homes and see they were taken care of in their basic needs," said Stein. "They weren't asking for things. We started connecting them with services they were unable to navigate through."

The senior center found that many seniors were nutritionally unsound, "just slipping away and being lonely," said Stein, but when noon meals were set up, they would come and find both nutrition and socialization.

People over 60 may eat lunch at the senior center five days a week for a suggested donation of $2.75, without any paperwork or membership, said Sharon Laws, its director for 17 years until her retirement two years ago.

The center serves about 7,400 people a year with information and referral for resources. Last year, it served 7,136 meals on site through the Food and Friends program and delivered almost 8,000 meals to the homebound, said Dodson.

Activities for seniors include tai chi, yoga, line dancing, discussion groups, computer instruction, insurance assistance and day trips, Dodson said.

"They come and they get involved, not just in lunch, but activities, cards, dancing, learning new things," said Laws. "They get important medical information that they might not get. It's a place for them to be with one another and develop great ties."

For information, call 488-5342 or go to www.ashlandparksandrec.org and link to Senior Activity Center on the left tool bar.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.