By TRAVIS HANDY
In a meeting of Pulaski Town Council last week, Vice Mayor Joseph Goodman suggested merging the town’s economic development and community relations departments into one community development department. As part of his suggested plan, the position of senior center director would be reduced to part-time, using volunteers to “keep the same hours” at Pulaski Senior Center on North Washington Avenue.
The total operating budget for the senior center for the current fiscal year 2012-13 is $80,960. For this fiscal year, Pulaski County agreed to provide $21,000 for the center, as many people who use it live outside of town. The next year’s budget would increase to $82,423 with $68,533 covering personnel at true cost. For the next budget, Goodman recommended not asking the county for money because the county already has “serious financial issues.”
Although they realize this is only a proposed change, the idea doesn’t sit well with seniors who fear losing access to programs housed by the center and supported by the staff members who work in the facility. Currently, Community Relations Director Barbi Tate fills the roles of senior center director and the town’s events planner.
Gathered for activities and a twice-weekly local Agency on Aging (AOA) program called “Friendship Café” on Tuesday, several seniors voiced their opinions about what they call “the only place they have,” and some of the possibilities implied by the previous week’s conversation in council. Their concerns were for the center staying open as well as who will run it.
“I don’t think it’s right,” said Virgie Newcomb. “We need our (center) here. I’ve read that most of us come from out in the county, but most of us are really from Pulaski.”
From July to December 2012 the senior center served 1,148 town citizens and 790 county citizens. The Walking Club the center conducts at Central Gym included 554 town citizens and 334 county citizens in the same period of time.
Newcomb said the center is important to her because it gives her opportunities to get away from her daily routine and enjoy time with her peers. She cares for family members and lacks chances for the same conversation at home.
“It gives me something to do and places to go,” chimed in Patty Cox. “We get to meet new friends and have fellowship with each other.” She added the group is always made to feel welcome and at home when visiting the center. Her sentiments were echoed around the room.
“I enjoy coming for the fellowship and just to be with people who are near my age,” said 85-year-old Carl Goad. “The people have become family here. When we come for movies or dinners it’s more like a family dinner than anything else.”
Cox and Holcomb pointed out they come to the center three, four or more times a week for activities, meals and occasional field trips.
People using the center worry volunteers wouldn’t be present enough to fill the positions already occupied by Tate and her assistant, Marion Wojcik, possibly limiting access to the center when the programs they attend are supposed to be held. Friendship Café and Pulaski Retired and Senior Volunteer Programs (RSVP), both programs of the New River Valley AOA, are housed inside the center. RSVP alone coordinates about 180 senior volunteers through the center, according to the program’s director, Ava Stilwell.
“I think there would be some volunteers, but they won’t be doing what Barbi and Marion do for us,” said Cox.
AOA Executive Director Tina King indicated the agency would look into other possible options if changes at the center ever became an issue for housing either of the programs, indicating there isn’t enough information at this point to raise such concerns.
“We appreciate the town allowing us the use of space for the RSVP program and the Friendship Café,” said King. “At this point, I don’t know enough about the proposed changes and how they will impact the availability or use of the senior center or the level of programming to make additional comments.”
Town Manager John Hawley said he thinks the senior center is “very important to the overall quality of life here in town.”
“I think it’s an important function of our local government to a section of our population that is growing,” Hawley said. He added there are other times when seniors are in the center helping out with tasks for the town, such as stuffing Easter eggs for the annual egg hunt, folding newsletters, or preparing coupon bags passed out at the annual fire parade. “They’ve basically been willing to help us any time we’ve needed them to,” he said.
Hawley said the senior center is a big part of the community and it should be a place where seniors can gather when they want something to do. He said council would have to work on a solution to serve seniors at the same level as usual should any proposed changes affect operations at the center.
“At this point in time it is just a discussion of combining the community relations … and the economic development (departments) into one department—community development,” said Hawley. “What we have is our community relations director serves as the senior center director, community relations director and events planner, so I think you’re asking a whole lot of one person.”
He said town staff and council will have to do more research before any decisions are made in the matter, although he feels “there is no community” if there isn’t an active senior center.
Between readings of poetry, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and singing “God Bless America” before the group shared their meal, another senior, Eyvonne Spencer, shared her thoughts, invoking the sentiments of the majority of those present.
“I think the senior center is the best thing Pulaski has to offer senior citizens,” Spencer said. “We’ve carried our load over a half-century and it’s time for the community to give back to the senior citizens.”