Monday, September 22, 2008

Sunnyside Senior Center Thrives Despite Budget Cuts

Sunnyside Community Services’ celebration for the official opening of their renovated senior center on Sept. 4th attracted so many people, volunteers said, that lunch ran out before all of the guests could be served.

The hot lunches served six days a week at the Sunnyside senior center are what Richard McGrade, assistant director of the senior center, points to as the best indicator of how many people the center serves.

“We’re supposed to be averaging 185 people a day,” said McGrade. “Since we moved downstairs we’re averaging 210 or 212.”

The renovations created an inviting space with sunny yellow walls and abundant natural light, and opened up first-floor rooms for most activities. Not having to navigate stairs or depend on the center’s unreliable elevator means more seniors can see the new facilities for themselves.

“I started coming here because I had a lot of free time and wanted to make friends,” said Ines La Rotta, 66, who has been coming to the center for lunch since retiring last July and has also started taking exercise classes. “I love the new space; it’s beautiful and more comfortable.”

In addition to hot lunches, the center offers exercise and English as a second language classes, bingo, dance lessons and day trips. While most members live in the immediate area, some come from as far away as the Bronx to take advantage of the center’s services.

“One man who comes down from the Bronx used to live in the neighborhood,” said Virginia Shaw, a volunteer at the center. “Most other people hear about the center from a friend and start coming with them.”

Interest in the new senior center has caused an increase in use of the center since its unofficial opening in June. Yet, in the same month, the center’s funding from the Department for the Aging was cut by $24,000. While the SCS’ annual revenue from grants and donations is more than $33 million for the senior center, senior home care, adult day care for Alzheimer’s patients and youth services combined, this cut applies only to the senior center.

“We are doing the best we can to cope with the lost funding,” McGrade said. “We cut one consultant’s program by half an hour. We’re trying to cut back in the most general ways possible without upsetting the way things flow and run here.”

Budget cuts are nothing new for senior centers across the city. “The Department for the Aging is always cutting funding,” said Andrea Ross, program manager at Catholic Charities’ St. Mary’s Senior Center in Long Island City. “Any city or state budget is always going to get cut, so maybe we have less money for stamps. You have to work within what’s available.”

St. Mary’s is more typical of senior centers across the city. With attendance dropping over the years, the Long Island City center now serves an average of 35 to 40 people a day. According to a DFTA fact sheet, 44 percent of senior centers are underutilized. The agency is beginning what it is calling a modernization of centers across the city by consolidating services in larger facilities and closing centers it says are not being used to their full potential.

With use of the Sunnyside center still increasing, the staff focus is on absorbing this year’s budget cuts and moving on.

“The cuts were based on numbers from last year,” said McGrade. “We’ll definitely be asking for more money next year with our increased numbers and hopefully we’ll be able to at least get back the $24,000 we lost this year.”

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