No one relishes the idea of throwing a party without knowing how many guests might show up, yet organizers of the Ellicott City Senior Center's 20th anniversary bash are doing just that.
Arranged as an open house so that attendance wouldn't be limited to the main hall's capacity of 125, the milestone event from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday could conceivably attract a crowd of two to three times that number, said center director Carla Buehler.
"It's hard to prepare for, but a huge turnout would be wonderful and would help demonstrate what we keep saying - we need to expand this facility," she said. "Taxpayers get a lot of bang for their buck here."
One thing's for certain: Velva Howard - who took part when the center began in her church's basement in 1988 and has been a member ever since - will be there Wednesday to greet well-wishers and lead the celebration as the center's unofficial ambassador.
"Everyone loves Velva. How can you not?" asked Buehler, who is the center's first and only director. "She is the heart and soul of this place."
Howard, who's 81 and a county native, said she thinks of Buehler as her daughter since they have been through a lot over two decades - from hatching the program at Emory United Methodist Church with seven members to watching membership grow to 1,079 today.
They've dealt together with personal issues as well; Howard's husband had Alzheimer's and then died in 1998, and Buehler is recovering from cancer.
Phyllis Madachy, county deputy chief administrative officer, said that Howard and Buehler make a great team. "I well remember when we first opened in the church basement. Carla and Velva have been two consistent figures in the life of the center ever since.
"I am not at all surprised at [the center's] constant growth. We even talked about making it bigger at the ribbon-cutting ceremony," said the former administrator of the county's office on aging.
Buehler and Howard reminisced about outgrowing the church's quarters and moving in 1998 to the Yingling Ridgely VFW Post 7472 in Ellicott City, where all their activities took place on the first floor. Photographs show some members playing cards as others got their blood pressure taken, while still others were using gym equipment across the room.
"Sometimes we even exercised out in the parking lot when we needed extra space," Buehler said, smiling at the memory.
When the county announced plans for the 12,500-square-foot facility, seniors began joining in droves "because they knew what was coming and wanted to be a part of it," she said.
"The Ellicott City center is a vibrant place that has been filled to capacity from the beginning," said Susan Rosenbaum, county director of citizen services. "Velva Howard is very special lady with a warm heart and a big part of what makes the center such a welcoming place."
One person in particular stands out in Howard's mind as a major ally when the center's membership was growing so rapidly.
"Jim Robey was instrumental in getting us to where we are today," said Howard, of the county's 13th District senator. "He truly is the reason for this center. When he was county executive he used to drop in all the time, so we bought him a rocking chair to sit in."
Robey, who acknowledged he is "a rocking chair freak," said he enjoys sitting and chatting with the seniors. His aunt, Ella Stump, plays cards at the center.
"They are a fantastic group of people and they've worked hard to get where they are. I'm glad I could give them what they deserved," he said of the building, which opened in 2002 at its current location behind the Miller branch of the Howard County Library on Frederick Road.
"I think I was being selfish in building it, though, since I knew I'd probably join the center one day," he added.
Buehler said she intends to do just that in two years. "When I turn 62 in December 2010, I plan to retire. I would love to take a quilting class here, use the exercise room and just hang out with the girls," she said.
The center director said she now counts on Howard to "nudge" important visitors, as she once did Robey, about the need for expansion at the center.
Howard and friend Dorothy Biller often employ "a tag-team approach," Buehler explained, chuckling at the thought. "Velva talks to people about the center's needs while Dorothy takes shorthand, then they send out a letter the next day to whomever they spoke to, reminding them of their conversation. It's pretty impressive to watch."
Robey knows firsthand about Howard's persistence. "Velva was working on me pretty good just two years into [occupying] the new building," he said. "There's no doubt in my mind they could use more room, but the county executive is juggling a lot of priorities, and there just isn't enough money to go around."
Rosenbaum said her department's focus right now is on building a senior center to serve the North Laurel/Savage population. "Of course we will be looking at Ellicott City and all the centers and how we can best serve them in the future," she said.
When not talking about the need for expansion, Howard serves as president of the Ellicott City Senior Center Council and was just re-elected for another two-year term.
"Everything I do for the senior center is a labor of love," she said. "I'm not somebody who can be home all the time staring at the same four walls," said Howard, who added that her children have a hard time contacting her because she's always on the go.
"Senior citizens who become inactive begin to cycle downward healthwise," said Buehler. "We don't want any old-thinking people here; just fun-thinking people, no matter what their age. We keep them busy and keep them going."
Is someone in your neighborhood worth writing about? Columnist Janene Holzberg wants to know. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 410-461-4150.
Senior Center Open House
What: Called "A Sweet Success," the celebration will include light fare and cake, door prizes and giveaways. Dress is casual.
When: Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; doors open at 10 a.m.
Where: 9401 Frederick Road, Ellicott City.
Programs: Live musical entertainment will be offered on the hour throughout the event, group photos will be taken with an anniversary backdrop, DVD slide show of past events will play continuously, and guests will receive a chocolate candy bar with a memento wrapper. For more information, call 410-313-1400.