Jobyna Nickum retires after 30 years running Enumclaw’s senior center

Recreation Programmer Melissa Holt will be taking her position.

After thirty years of entertaining and invigorating seniors at the Enumclaw Senior Center, Jobyna Nickum is finally becoming a retiree herself.

Dozens, many of them Senior Center visitors, packed the building’s activity center Thursday to bid Nickum farewell and meet her replacement, current recreation programmer Melissa Holt.

As manager of the Senior Center, Nickum and her staff have provided classes, workshops and other activities to keep senior citizens physically and mentally active and engaged with their community.

During the ceremony, Holt and Enumclaw City Administrator Chris Searcy presented Nickum with a surprise: A large plaque that will proclaim the activity room as the “Jobyna Nickum Activity Room” in honor of her contributions.

“I can honestly say that I learned from the greatest,” Holt told the assembled crowd. “She will literally do anything for anyone. … Jobyna, you are why the Senior Center exists. You have so much love for our seniors and this community.”

Holt, formerly the Senior Center’s recreation coordinator, joked that Nickum “stole [her] away” from the Sumner Senior Center in 2019 to work in Enumclaw. Holt has worked in the field for about nine years and said she especially enjoys putting together events for seniors.

Nickum was involved in establishing computer stations and classes, building improvements, the neighbors feeding neighbors program, grant-writing for programs that fed seniors and more, speakers said.

For many seniors, “this is their family, their social life, their reason to get out of bed in the morning,” said Resource Navigator Janine Carpenter. “It’s that connection with peers. It’s one thing to go to an exercise class. It’s another thing to be with people who are all your age, all doing the same thing, letting you know you can do it.

Nickum said she’d worried all morning before the ceremony — such as about the stormy weather, and the COVID risks of bringing people inside.

“What makes a good Senior Center director is, you worry about your seniors,” Nickum said through tears during the ceremony. “Is there enough cake? Are the bathrooms clean? Did the floors get washed? Do we have enough coffee? Is it going to rain during the picnic? … You have to love the people you serve, and I have loved everyone who’s walked in the doors.”

That includes even “the porcupines,” Nickum said, or the gruffer folks who are hard to hug.

“But I’ve always told the staff that porcupines need the most hugs,” Nickum said.

Barb Slack, a Senior Center visitor who has also volunteered there, encouraged the seniors to give Holt a warm welcome as she takes over.

“Old people don’t like to start over,” Slack said. “Old people don’t like change. So we will all smile and stop crying eventually, and say ‘Melissa, we love you.’ And we’re all going to give her the biggest chance.”

Nickum called herself “blessed” to learn the stories of surviving and thriving from the seniors she’s meant.

“I think that in America, we don’t value aging, and our elderly,” Nickum said. “I love getting to know older adults. They are absolute history books, and we get to learn their stories and what they’ve been through.”

From those who fought in miserable war-time conditions to farming families that raised a dozen kids from nothing — “How do you not value that?” Nickum said. “How do you not want to learn from that?”

The way she tells it, Nickum’s path to directing the Senior Center seemed like destiny.

She discovered her passion while attending school in Green River college and working at an Auburn nursing home to pay for school.

“I found that I was going into work half an hour early, so I could visit the seniors, and staying late, so I could visit with the seniors,” Nickum said. “I realized that my love was being with seniors.”

She prayed one day for a sign from God. The next quarter at school, she learned about the “brand-new” field of Geriatrics and Gerontology, set to explode over the next few decades as the Baby Boomers hit retirement age.

She finished her bachelors’ at Washington State University and sought her Masters in Gerontology (the study of aging) at Baylor University in Texas. It also gave Nickum and her husband a chance to spend time with their elderly relatives who lived in the state.

Prior to Enumclaw, she worked for a corporation running a long term Alzheimer’s care unit in Bellevue.

“I felt like I was really not doing my true calling,” Nickum said.

Over lunch one day, she discussed her frustrations with her parents, and a few days later her dad called about a job opening in Enumclaw.

“He said I think this is what you’re supposed to do,” Nickum said. “And I said OK, I’ll go interview for it.”

Seven days later, her dad died unexpectedly.

Nickum applied for the job, and got it. Ever since, she’s viewed it as a gift from her dad.

“All the years that I’ve loved this job, and loved getting to know all of you and the wonderful people I’ve had to work with, is a gift from my father,” Nickum told the crowd. “And so I dedicate all the love in this room to my dad. Thank you daddy, and my mom who volunteered here for my first ten years. They gave me the gift of all of you.”