In a year in which “work” has been redefined over and over again, being selected as an employee of the month required standing out from hundreds of others tackling unexpected challenges with enthusiasm and innovation.
In the case of Janet Word, that was par for the course.
Word, coordinator of the South Knox Senior Center, was recognized by Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs as the county’s Employee of the Month Wednesday afternoon at the City County Building.
Later, on social media, Word expressed her gratitude but downplayed her acclamation. However, those who’ve seen her in action in the decade-plus she’s spent at the SKSC know she deserves plaques, trophies, ribbons and more. (She’s actually earned a bunch of those competing in swimming and softball in the Senior Olympics.)
Under “normal” circumstances, Word paces around the center much of the day, interacting with seniors and setting up activities with an endless supply of energy. The rest of the time, she’s working with staff or on the phone talking with companies and nonprofits that can help the center make life better for the seniors who count on the SKSC for mental and physical support, entertainment and camaraderie.
She earned lifeguard certification so that she could keep the center’s pool open when the regular lifeguard was on vacation or unavailable.
She makes every holiday a celebration with decorations, games and refreshments, and she’s usually the one in the funniest costume.
She’s as real as it gets, but she loves to show her silly side and to see people having a good time.
Nothing has been normal since the coronavirus pandemic arrived in March. But Word, who admits she’s not what you would call computer savvy, has become adept at Zoom and other aspects of the virtual world.
“Knox County Senior Services has been offering virtual programming since April,” says Word. “All people have to do is go online to www.knoxcounty.gov.”
Word, who earned her bachelor’s degree in education with an emphasis in recreation administration from the University of Tennessee, contributes a weekly “Jaunts with Janet” video. Although Knoxville’s Tennessee Valley Fair was canceled, the Walland resident took her GoPro to the Sevier County Fair and recorded her visit.
“Since they couldn’t get out and go, I went. I would talk you through where we went and what we saw. That way they had the opportunity to get out and see some things even though they couldn’t get out of their house.”
She’s also taken her followers “to Israel” through slide shows.
Word and her staff of two have been back at the center since October, although it remains closed to the public.
“We’re all three working on different programs,” she says. “One is on the phone all the time – doing care checks on people, how can we help you, doing referrals; sending out birthday cards and thinking-of-you cards. We’re actually busier now than we are when we’re open, if that makes any sense.”
She can feel the pain and loneliness in seniors’ voices through the phone.
“It’s really depressing talking to some of these people because they get so run down just sitting at home.”
A few of the regulars come and use the walking track. But proof that people are always up for Word’s whimsical ideas was obvious during the holidays.
She organized a Jingle Bell Drive-Thru Reverse Christmas Parade for the week before Christmas. It got rained out on Wednesday, but two days later it was festive success.
“We had 72 seniors and two dogs come through our parade,” says Word. “It was awesome.” Eight sponsors decorated their cars and set up floats in the center’s parking lot, and the seniors drove through – each receiving a brown bag with old-fashioned Christmas treats like apples, oranges, candy canes and chocolates. The Arc Knox County (formerly Sunshine Industries) decorated the bags with artwork.
“We had made 75 bags, and we had 72 seniors, so it was perfect.”
Volunteers helped with traffic, and a Rural Metro truck came by and revved its siren a few times. There was a little pony dressed up like Santa Claus, and County Commissioner Carson Dailey dressed in his Santa pajamas and helped out with several duties.
Jacobs was scheduled to attend as Santa, but he had a conflict on the rescheduled date, so Word’s husband, Phil, filled in for him.
“He’s very supportive of the seniors of Knox County,” she says of the mayor.
Thanksgiving fun was a highlight of the fall.
“We had the Hoot, Holler & Honk Drive-Thru,” says Word. “I think we had 39 seniors come to that. We had several sponsors and gave out goody bags. We wore gloves and masks, so we could see people and they could see us.”
The Bristol native says she and the staff have been praying for a return to in-person activities, and they are keeping the faith.
“I think I’m where God wants me to be, and until He moves me I feel like I’m fulfilling my purpose. I just think we all seek out people that resonate with your soul. That’s what I’m missing the most.”