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For several charitable organizations, the holiday season — like the rest of the year — is a time to help those dealing with some of life's toughest problems and providing solutions to those problems. In the week leading up to Christmas, the News Tribune is showcasing people whose lives have been impacted by United Way of Central Missouri partner agencies and supporters in the annual "A Christmas Wish" series.

Document: Senior Nutrition Council 990 - 2019

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Four years ago, when Mentha Bakari moved to Jefferson City and stumbled across the Clarke Senior Center, she was eager to get involved — so much so, she said she "went in with all four feet."

"Actually, I have two feet," she laughed, sitting at a table in the senior center as her gold earrings swished around and reflected off her bright smile.

But "four" may not be an exaggeration — Bakari is always doing double.

A common face at the Clarke Senior Center and within the Senior Nutrition Council, Bakari participates in the congregate and curbside meal programs, organizes center activities including showcasing Black history, and volunteers when she's available to do so.

The packed schedule is nothing new for her.

Bakari's previous experience could easily fill a multi-page resume, as Clarke Senior Center Administrator Nathan Baysinger joked. He'd asked Bakari to "remind me of your background," stepped out of his office and later came back to a "six-page resume on my desk." In his retelling of the moment, Bakari wore an ear-to-ear smile on her face and laughed.

"I always have to be doing something," Bakari said.

Her varied background has always been helpful, Baysinger said.

Coming from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Bakari spoke fondly of her time there as a licensed practical nurse, but she also pointed to her prior work at hospitals in Chicago. From there, she breezed through a children's hospital to a women's center and did prepartum and postpartum work with mothers as well as prenatal care coordination.

"So when I say I always have to have something to do, I feel that I was born to be of service to the community," Bakari said. "And that's what I do — whatever community I'm in, I'm doing what I was born to do, and that's to serve people in whatever capacity I need to."

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Her work doesn't stop there. Baysinger listed a few others: mental health assistance, drug abuse awareness, early learning for children, life skills training and civil rights. The latter was seen in one of the first events she helped organize at the senior center.

One of the first things she did at the center was a program honoring the late Martin Luther King Jr. She remembers asking a former director what the center was planning to do for the federal recognition of MLK Day. When she was told, "Oh, we haven't really been big on that," Bakari saw it as her chance to take the reins.

A simple "Can I help?" started what can be described as a snowballing of Black history events. With each director, since coming to Jefferson City four years ago, she'd propose an idea to learn more about Black history.

One of her favorite ways to do so — pre-pandemic, of course — has been through music. Naturally, a musical showcasing spirituals and R&B came about. The thing about music, Bakari said, is it's the uniting peace for everybody.

"I feel like music does that. It crosses the lines. It tells a story, it highlights an ethnic group that has done a lot that don't necessarily get their achievements recognized, and people are not threatened (by music)," she said.

The response, Bakari said, has been incredible. Nearly 100 people showed up the first time.

At the MLK Day celebration, structured like a birthday party, she remembers hearing an exchange between two women as people began clearing out of the center. Earlier, she had passed out the lyrics to Stevie Wonder's song "Happy Birthday" for people to read over.

"What is this stuff?" one of the two women had said.

The other responded: "Oh, they were celebrating one of the African American people."

The first inquired, again, why.

"Well, they deserve heroes just like we got," came the response.

"And I really was tickled by that," Bakari said, "because it was a very innocent conversation. Even though she didn't remember the name seeds were planted."

Clarke Senior Center has offered her those opportunities — opportunities to share culture, history and passions.

"The Clarke Senior Center has just opened their doors and said, 'You want to do what? Oh sure, OK! When do you want to do it?' And I'm grateful for that," Bakari said.

Bakari has forged relationships at the center she's not sure she would have forged otherwise.

Pre-COVID, she sat at the receptionist's desk, seeing people come and go. There, she got a chance to meet people who didn't necessarily stay for lunch but were volunteering to deliver food. She's also delivered food herself, personally going to knock on the doors of her fellow residents.

"And people were grateful that somebody came to their door to give them something," she said. "See, it's a two-way street. I get a chance to do something that's fulfilling, and then when the people respond, then that's a gift to me and my inner growth."

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When asked about what makes Bakari so special, Baysinger sings her praises. It's extremely helpful having someone lively around, he said.

"For some of our congregants, there's a temptation of having the (Clarke) Senior Center just be part of your daily routine: You come, eat, talk to your usual three or four people, and you head out the door," he said. "But if we have somebody who is being a very polite hostess or wiping down the table or even just popping from table to table that's more socialization for people that they might not have gotten that day. It gets them out of their shell, gets them to smile and laugh a little bit in the day."

Bakari does have one small confession in all of this, though. Living in the Hyder Apartments complex next door, she initially heard of the senior center because of its proximity. She didn't know what the center was really about.

"I thought I was going to be attending workshops, making silk scarves, doing woodwork, a little jewelry," she laughed.

By now, she's stepped into her role with flair and a willing heart, if her wide smile while she walks through the center says anything. Now, she does "whatever they need me to do."

"If they say, 'Hey, Mentha, we need you to wash tables down,' then I get the bucket and get going. If they say, 'Can you run some lunches upstairs for me?' 'Sure. Give me the list,'" she said. "I'm in this world to serve, however I can do that."

How to Donate

The United Way will establish an "A Christmas Wish" fund, and donors can give a gift "in the name of" someone specific or a United Way partner agency.

In order to be tax-deductible, checks must be made payable to the United Way of Central Missouri and the United Way must retain the right to specifically determine whom the donation will benefit.

A volunteer committee will oversee the distribution of these funds. If you want to help fulfill a Christmas wish in Mid-Missouri, mail checks to United Way of Central Missouri, 205 Alameda Drive, Jefferson City MO, 65109. "News Tribune Christmas Wish Fund" should be noted on the memo line of the check.

Questions may be directed to Ann Bax, president of United Way of Central Missouri, at 573-636-4100 or [email protected]

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