The four Senior Community Centers in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia are a welcome place to come for a meal, and the opportunity to share time with others.
The Senior Community Centers, however, offer much more to the 400 people they serve each day. The Senior Community Centers give those 60 years old and up an opportunity to engage in recreational activities, learn about health and nutrition, and understand aging issues while meeting their neighbors. They are vibrant and alive with caring staff, and the services they provide are free.
The four Senior Community Centers are St. Anne’s, 2607 E. Cumberland St. in Port Richmond; St. Charles, 1941 Christian St. in South Philadelphia; Star Harbor, 4700 Springfield Ave. in Southwest Philadelphia, and Norris Square, 2121 North Howard St. in North Central Philadelphia. These centers are administered by Catholic Social Services and are funded by the Philadelphia Corporation for the Aging, the Catholic Charities Appeal and other fundraisers.
“The Senior Community Centers were created in the 1970s as a safe place to get a meal and gain new knowledge of the community, of self and of others,” said Kathleen Emery, director for Community Based and Specialized Services in the Archdiocese.
Close to 50 percent of the seniors are 80 years old and over, Emery said. “Many have outlived their spouses, and in some cases, their children,” she said. “When they come here they feel they are no longer alone. They take better care of their health, they are more physically active and they stay independent.”
Barbara Jo Hartzell has been the center coordinator at St. Anne’s for 19 years. She says every day is busy — a hot meal is served five days a week. Some days there are 20 people; on others they may be as many as 75. For some, Hartzell said, this is the only hot meal the participants will have all day.
The meal brings people together, but other social needs are addressed.
“They don’t sit around and talk about what medicines they’re taking or how many heart attacks they had,” Hartzell said. “This is a social gathering. There’s a lot of laughing going on.”
There is also a lot of help provided by the staff, which includes an activities director, a social worker, a secretary, a maintenance man and a data clerk.
The needs of the seniors in the Port Richmond community are diverse. “Someone may be having a problem with their Social Security check or a life insurance problem,” Hartzell said. “People may get mugged. We can get through to people on the other end, be an advocate for the client. We’re here to assist them, and there is no charge.”
Among the services offered is a diabetic awareness program, free flu shots and free eye exams. There are recreational activities and visiting speakers who address health issues.
Kathy Boles has been the center coordinator at St. Charles for seven years. Before that she was program director for eight. St. Charles will be celebrating its 40th anniversary soon — 10 years at the current site and 30 at St. Rita of Cascia Parish, Broad and Ellsworth Streets.
“The meals are extremely important,” Boles said. “Recently we have been offering a full breakfast, and that’s a huge hit.” The daily schedule includes recreational, social and spiritual activities for about 65 people.
St. Charles has started a game night on Friday, and that has been well attended. “Before people left around 2 p.m.,” she said. “Now they will stay until about 7 on Friday night.
They play bingo, pinochle and pool.
Currently, four nursing students from Oman, a country on the southeast corner of the Arabian Peninsula, are volunteering at St. Charles for seven weeks. The nursing students from Villanova University come twice a week and provide health and nutritional education along with recreational activities. “The students and the seniors are learning about each other,” Boles said. “We recently had a question-and-answer session about the issue of aging, how it is different in Oman and here.”
The St. Charles staff numbers three, with 15 volunteers. Among the activities is teaching seniors how to use Facebook, the social networking site.
“Whether it’s staff or volunteers, everybody knows your name at St. Charles,” Boles said. “We have a really inviting atmosphere here. Sometimes things aren’t great at home. When people come here we tell them to leave those things outside. Don’t think about those things. We treat people special. Holidays are big here. Name a holiday and we celebrate it. Birthdays are big. We celebrate and have a good time.”
The Star Harbor Senior Community Center serves a continental breakfast and a family-style lunch for 65 to 80 people on a daily basis. There is no membership fee, but a donation is asked for lunch.
Center coordinator Ernestine Patterson and her staff of five reach out to the Southwest Philadelphia community through flyers sent to churches and senior partner facilities. Indeed, word of mouth is the best advertisement for the energetic center.
“We re a very diverse center,” said Patterson, who has been center coordinator for 12 years. “All nationalities, all religions; we are like a family.” Seniors represent the Catholic, Baptist, Lutheran and Muslim faiths, said Patterson. “All faiths are embraced; it’s all about the love,” she said.
Among the recreational activities offered are bingo, needlework, ceramics, bowling and exercise classes. Also offered are Spanish club, drama club, salsa and line dancing and photography workshops. An inspirational prayer group meets once a week and once a year an interfaith open house is held.
Two current programs are a commodities program, in which seniors receive a box of perishables once a month, and a farmer’s market voucher program, in which 750 people in the community participate.
“We have very active seniors,” Patterson said. “Our people are friendly and the staff is warm and welcoming.
The Norris Square Senior Community Center is unique among the archdiocesan senior centers.
“It’s the biggest center of the four,” said Bethzaida Butler-Lopez, the center coordinator. “Each day we serve 100 to 110 people; on a good day we have 150. We are the only center that cooks hot meals on site — breakfast and lunch. Our lunch room holds 235 people.”
Butler-Lopez started as a secretary at Norris Square 15 years ago. She became program coordinator, then center coordinator five years ago.
Her Spanish-speaking staff numbers nine. They are 45 member volunteers. Butler-Lopez said 97 percent of the center’s clients are Hispanic. English is taught as a second language.
Norris Square is also unique in that the members select a king and a queen, along with two assistants each, who serve for a year.
The elections take place during St. Valentine’s Day week in February. It is called the “Love in Friendship Pageant.” The six people who are elected form a committee that works with Butler-Lopez and program director Shelia Mercado.
Cesareo Mendez is the current king, and Victoria Martinez is the queen. Among their duties are visiting the sick in the hospital with a fruit basket, visiting the homebound and checking to see if the regular members show up at the center. “The king and the queen each get a crown; it’s very exciting,” Butler-Lopez said.
The center offers recreational, health and nutrition programs. Mass is celebrated twice a month, and there is also an interfaith service.
“We are providing services to the seniors that they may not get anywhere else, in their own language,” Butler-Lopez said. “This center is unique. I am very happy to work here. It’s more than a job, it’s a blessing.”