CARROLLWOOD – When Bill Castens put a notice in The Tampa Tribune 10 years ago looking for active seniors to help him form a club, he wasn’t sure what to expect.
He told his wife he hoped for a turnout of 20 at the first meeting. Anne Castens said their home could hold only about 24, so his target was sound. When 66 people responded, Castens knew he was on to something, but conceded he might need a little help.
That’s when Bill Castens approached Rick Valdez, the senior recreation specialist at the Northdale Recreation Center. Valdez, who was also hoping to start a group for active seniors in the community, said the center was open for that first meeting and those to follow.
So, on Nov. 18, 2002, the Northdale OWLS met for the first time with 42 people. Ten years later, the group – whose name stands for Older, Wiser, Lively Seniors – boasts a membership roster that tops 800. About 300 seniors turn out for monthly meetings at the recreation center and many more come for activities throughout the month and day and overnight trips.
“They say some things happen for a reason,” Valdez said of the initial partnership with Castens. “It was perfect timing.”
Valdez and Castens both admit they knew a group for seniors who wanted fun, social and lively activities was needed, but they didn’t realize just how much it was needed.
“I don’t think any of us anticipated the growth of the organization,” said Valdez, who now serves as the recreation manager for the Hillsborough County Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department. He credits Castens and other OWLS leaders, such as Marty and Sylvia Katz, with helping foster the group’s success.
“It all starts with the community leadership,” Valdez said.
Castens said building the OWLS and keeping it thriving has been a lot of work, but it’s a labor of love.
“You need somebody to organize safe activities,” he said. “It really has turned out to be almost a religion for me – it’s what I do. You’ve got to have a passion for it.”
Marty and Sylvia Katz also have that passion. Marty was with Castens at that first meeting and now he and his wife continue to help lead the organization and plan trips and activities for OWLS members.
“We have the most wonderful volunteers,” said Sylvia, pointing out that’s one of the reasons the OWLS have thrived.
As for the community’s need for the OWLS, Marty says it’s evident. He recounted a story about a woman who pulled up to the recreation center one day to inquire about the club. “Is this where you come to meet other people and have fun,” she asked.
Marty Katz says that pretty much sums up the OWLS.
With 10 years under its belt, Castens said the OWLS group continues to grow. The Northdale park has been expanded once to accommodate the influx of people at the park and another expansion is planned for the near future.
To accommodate the OWLS’ growth and other groups in the community, the Hillsborough parks department has plans to break ground on a 10,000-square-foot gymnasium in Northdale in early 2014, said Valdez.
Castens said the OWLS are looking forward to the expansion and credit County Commissioner Ken Hagan for helping make it happen, but someday hope to see something just for seniors built in the community.
“The goal is to build a senior center in Northdale and provide more services and then give this program to the county,” Castens said. “You need somebody to organize safe activities.”
The OWLS will celebrate their 10th anniversary Dec. 6 at 5:30 p.m. with a dinner and live musical show at the park. Tickets for the event are $20. The group normally meets the first Tuesday of every month at the Northdale Recreation Center, 15550 Spring Pine Drive, at 11 a.m.
The OWLS welcomes members age 50 and up from all over Hillsborough and beyond. The annual membership fee is $15, but it’s free for members of the Northdale Civic Association. For more information, visit the OWLS online by going to www.northdale.org and clicking on the “OWLS” tab at the bottom left. The website also lists the group’s monthly activities.