It had been seven months since John Huner had seen many of his friends. But Monday, he sat with two of his fellow 'active older adults' in the lobby of the CB Pennington Jr. YMCA on Old Hammond Highway, a cup of hot coffee resting on his walker and a smile on his face.
"It's like a high school reunion," Huner, 75, said, chuckling. "We haven't seen each other in seven months. … It's definitely a social thing, and it's helpful to keep fit."
The YMCA branch was hit hard by the August flood, as was much of the Millerville Road-O'Neal Lane area, taking on almost 4 feet of water, branch Executive Director Josh Landry said. The facility had been closed for cleanup and renovations until last week when it began offering limited hours, and Saturday, it will resume full operations.
Huner already has been back a number of times. Sitting with friends Joe Meyer, 75, and Jack Ziadeh, 60, they took advantage of the new couch in the lobby as they caught up with one another — everything from medical issues to politics and religion. Huner joked that while the men come for the exercise classes, they all arrive early and stay after for 'coffee class' in the lobby.
"As you get older, you find you get more isolated," Huner said. But with this community at the YMCA, it hasn't been that way for him.
During the renovations, Huner went to other YMCA locations, but he's happy to be back home, he said. And that has been a mutual feeling from many other members.
"It's been great to see everybody," Landry said. "Everybody comes in and goes, 'I'm glad I'm home.' … A lot of people have done more talking than working out this last week."
Yoga instructor and longtime member Monique Evans said she feels so much better knowing the residents can return to their routine.
"The idea that other members were not able to find that normalcy was just crushing to my soul," Evans, of Baton Rouge, said. "For some people, this is the only family they have; their sense of normalcy is (here)."
For some, she said, it's so important people can come to a class, participate in a potluck with peers or just chat around a cup of coffee. And she's one of the people who missed the friendly faces as well as the gym.
"It has been an inconvenience but secondary to the fact of missing what had become my community," Evans said, as she sweat through her workout Monday on the stair climber.
This branch is reopening with its first phase of renovations complete, Landry said. The indoor track, cardio equipment, weights and gym are ready for use, as are childcare and 15 of the classes. The indoor pool has been open since November, the one part of their center that could deal with the floodwaters, Landry said.
"We're planning on coming back full force; it's just going to take time," Landry said. The more members start returning, the faster they can rebuild resources, he said.
They plan to have a separate weight room — right now it's in part of the new gym — and work their way to offering up to 45 classes, the number of classes scheduled last summer before the flood, Landry said.
"We know people are going through stuff, so to have a moment where they can come into a facility to take a break, have some sense of normalcy; that's what they're looking for," Landry said.
Paul James was thrilled to hear the facility had reopened its doors because it's close to where he works. He used to come to the branch on his lunch break — but the last seven months were hard for him to get in his workout, he said.
"I'm elated that it's back," James, 50, of Baker, said. "It's been a blessing, when I found out they were open. … I couldn't wait."