Carolyn Bogott: Jenelle Cummings a voice for the elderly

Published 6:20 pm Tuesday, May 3, 2022

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Jenelle Cummings is a relatively new citizen of Austin, having moved here in 2013 to be near family. 

Jenelle Cummings

She jumped in with both feet to become a contributor to the community fabric through her areas of interest in art as well as services for older people. She gave hours of her time to remodeling the building that is now the Austin ArtWorks Center. She has hung many exhibitions, and regularly participates in the periodic  two-three  day  rearrangement  of the retail store. 

Kids studio art classes and art classes for developmentally disabled adults have been designed and taught by Jenelle. She has sorted and stored huge amounts of “recycled stuff” donated by JoAnn Fabrics and Judy McDonald. Jenelle’s mantra of “do something with nothing” has served her well in these classes as well as in setting up the children’s activities tent for the ArtWorks Festival. Jenelle has also shared her many talents on projects with the Friends of the Library and with Autism Austin at the Hormel Home.

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Currently, Jenelle is dedicating her time to older people and is now chair of the Southeast Minnesota Area Agency on Aging.  She said she has been privileged to be a facilitator for those who participate in the Care Givers Support Group.  She is looking for further ways to support these people she calls “real heroes.” Their request for somewhere appropriate to go with their loved ones has resulted in plans to open a Memory Cafe at the Mower County Seniors Center. Coffee and cookies will always be available, and brief, low-key programs will be presented by various community groups like the Jay C. Hormel Nature Center and the Mower County Historical Society. Also in the planning stage is a choir for those with dementia, in collaboration with the MacPhail Center for the Arts.

Jenelle traces her fascination with older people and with communication to early childhood experiences with her great grandmother who spoke only Norwegian, and a great aunt who was born deaf and did not speak.  Jenelle was enchanted by these two relatives and how to communicate with them. In elementary school, she had a blind classmate and a resource teacher helped Jenelle learn braille so she could understand the way her friend was reading and writing.

During her college years in Tucson, Arizona, Jenelle worked at an art store and became deeply immersed in the world of art and artists. She learned much about art as communication.  She also pursued her love of science and took courses in nursing, and she worked in hospitals.

Eventually, her various interests came together, and she completed a degree from University of Maine in Recreational Therapy. That led to a career in long term care facilities. Jenelle’s goal in all her years of work in this arena has been to empower the residents and keep them connected to the world.  She tells of “challenging the system” to allow residents to have teddy bears and dolls, which in the 80s were frowned upon as childish, but are now considered therapeutic devices. In a position as program manager at a brand-new nursing home, Jenelle worked with a resident council to run some small businesses. They made and sold pillow covers, soap, and sachets. And most of the supplies for the product were “making something out of nothing.”  The material for the pillow covers came from interior decorators’ fabric sample books.  Flowers for the sachets came from discards from a grocery store floral shop. For each of these products she worked with residents to analyze each task and divide the work into small increments assigned to work crews.  Jenelle chuckles when remembering putting out the announcement for the “petal pluckers to report for work.” These residents thrived doing actual meaningful work and deciding what to do with the proceeds.

Jenelle brings her “anything is possible” attitude to her volunteer work here in Austin. Her current goal for seniors in Mower County is to identify the gaps in service, especially for those living “out in the county.”  She knows more mental health services are needed, but other needs may come to light also.  Then she will be using her amazing creative powers to find better ways to serve older members of the Mower County Community.

Thank you, Jenelle Cummings for your creative and loving community service.

For more information about the Austin Branch of AAUW, contact Sue Grove  or Carolyn Bogott The American Association of University Women, now AAUW, is open to anyone who has completed a two-year degree or beyond.  AAUW welcomes men who support our objectives and there are student memberships available. AAUW has been empowering women since 1881.  We support equity and education for women.  Scholarships are offered, as well as help in litigation in cases dealing with sex discrimination.  We are the most important and highly respected research and lobbying organization dealing with women’s issues such as equal opportunity and job equality.