Seniors gear up and reach out to save vibrant center

Before the first hard frost and strong winds of winter hit Seattle, thick piles of orange and yellow leaves made the streets of the Central Area radiant. Inside the Central Area Senior Center, the energy level was equally vibrant.

"Let's Talk," a weekly dialogue between some of the center's members on a diverse range of topics, was just getting under way. The senior citizens arranged their chairs in a circle, silhouetted against a panoramic view of Mount Rainier and Lake Washington.

In light of the center's current financial struggle, the topic for the morning was highly personal: Why is this center important to the community and to your life?

Ola Crawford, a newer member, said, "It has been so wonderful for me. I'm able to interact with a lot of people and learn a lot while I'm here."

Volunteer Elaine Williams noted that "a lot of times seniors withdraw. This provides an opportunity for seniors to see a lot of people and to get out of the house."

Spare a dime?

The Central Area Senior Center has served the community since 1975, providing intellectual, health, creative and social outlets. Currently it is facing hard times financially.

According to director Linda Jones, the center has not met its fund-raising needs over the past two years. In 2004, the center came within $14,000 of its fund-raising goal. In 2005 the center fell similarly short, creating a deficit of about $30,000. Jones said the financial crisis threatened to close the center's doors in December, but Seattle City Council members Larry Gosset Jr. and Richard McGiver helped garner city funds to cover the debt.

While immediate closure of the center has been avoided, Jones asserted her organization's pocketbook troubles have merely been delayed. For 2006, the United Way slashed its funding to Seattle's senior services by 50 percent.

"They faced a cut, so we faced a cut," Jones said. "We're out of the woods for this year, but next year is going to be a critical time."

The financial situation is not a reflection on the center's success. Its cheery, energetic members have won best Team Action Plan, or comprehensive plan for a healthier lifestyle, at the Northwest Wellness Conference for Seniors for three years in a row. Earlier this month, Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt announced that Senior Services, the umbrella agency under which the center operates, was one of 10 nationwide winners for its Enhance Fitness program.

Yet the center needs funding for refurbishments and expansion to accommodate more programs. The center is also understaffed, lacking volunteer kitchen staff, van drivers, phone committee members, a newsletter assistant and a "Fix-it" brigade, said Jones.

The financial difficulties are surprising in light of the center's many fundraisers. These include "The Bite of New Orleans," in which Mardi Gras beads are showered on attendees, the Emerald City Jazz Ensemble plays, and nearby restaurant Catfish Corner supplies the food. During Seafair, the center sponsors a Family Food Court in which people can buy hot dogs, popcorn and ice cream, then sit on an enormous porch and watch the hydroplane races.

The "Evening of Jazz" fundraiser features performances by guitarist Michael Powers and the Garfield Jazz Band. The holiday party includes a champagne dinner with salmon and prime rib, followed by a dance floor with DJ. The annual golf tournament, five years running, especially attracts the community's younger generation, which is a big part of the center's mission.

"We would like the Senior Center to be something the whole community utilizes," said Jones. "We have an intergenerational approach to our fundraisers and programs."

In the six years since Jones began working at the center, the neighborhood has changed. Jones recalls the senior members living closer to the center. Now she mainly sees young families in the neighborhood. The center has expanded its activity base to include the community.

"We need input so we're not constantly in this crisis mode," Jones asserted. "What we're up against is the changing needs of the community."

To help explore these changing needs of the neighborhood, Jones is hosting a community, "stakeholders" meeting at the center (500 30th Ave. S.) on Dec. 8 from 5:30-7:30 p.m. Call 726-4926 for more information.

Bridging community gaps

Programs like "Let's Walk and Talk" encourage high school students to bond with seniors as they walk the Garfield High School track. Safeco, the University of Washington School of Nursing and the Enhance Wellness program have been partners in this program for three years. The American Cancer Society will join the partnership this month.

"There is often a barrier between young people and adults but we've found that by walking with the young students, they could open up. It's wonderful. They do talk to us," said Senior Center member Julia Doyle.

The seniors of the "Let's Talk" group were eager to share their ideas on how to interact with the young community: mentorship and tutoring programs were suggested.

The most exciting aspect of the "Let's Talk" meeting was the camaraderie and energy. The seniors were passionate about the center. Bursts of laughter were woven in with thoughtful responses to questions of the center's importance.

The center's members have a good time when they walk through its doors. Just down the hall from "Let's Talk," other members practiced the electric slide to a contemporary hip-hop song. They grooved against a backdrop of Northwest Wellness Conference awards and a framed article about the center's "Slider's" dance team, who perform at high schools in the community as a fundraiser for the center.

Emily Page may be reached via[[In-content Ad]]