Village senior center runs on volunteer powerJuly 17, 2014 • By The Villager
BY TEQUILA MINSKY | I am going to miss her, I will never get another volunteer like Chris,” said Loretta Wilson, her voice cracking, tears in her eyes. “She’s my very best.”
Every Wednesday, and other days as needed, Chris Bennett, 92, dishes out the vegetables during the senior lunches at the 20 Washington Square North location of the Greenwich House Senior Center.
She is about to move to California to join her son.
“I know I’ll miss people,” she said, though adding, “It’s time.”
For Wilson, the senior center’s food-service supervisor, Bennett has been an inspiration.
“I want to grow up to be like Chris,” she said.
In addition to Bennett, there are other volunteers who help make sure the food service for more than 120 seniors runs smoothly.
For example, early each workday, Village resident Rose Marie Neilsen, with the help of stained-glass artist Bob Rambusch, dries silverware and then wraps the forks, knives and spoons into sets in napkins.
And every day, three or four developmentally and intellectually disabled volunteers, in a program through AHRC, also assist in the lunch service.
Gina Zukerman — a real dynamo who is both a volunteer and a center member — helps ease the serving logistics, calling out numbers for the lunch crowd to line up. She formerly worked at an ad agency, where she did production. But long before that, in a dark chapter of her life, this Polish-born immigrant worked in three different German forced-labor camps, the last in Bavaria.
“I’m 88½!” she’ll let you know.
The Greenwich House Senior Center at 20 Washington Square North has 1,200 members, with three paid staff along with social workers. Director Laura Marcera has been at the center since its renovation 11 years ago.
“I couldn’t run his place without volunteers,” she said.
Luckily, there a lot of volunteers, a total of 40 — 15 of whom are seniors.
The center, open Monday through Friday, also offers members more than 25 recreational and educational classes, half of them taught by volunteers. The most popular are the three-times-a-month poetry sessions, led by volunteers, and the weekly singing lessons taught by Richard Mithies — who also teaches Greek mythology at the center — the latter which attract 20 members.
Two young volunteers alternate weeks teaching a chair-yoga class. Latin, French, Italian film, salsa, knitting and a biweekly financial seminar are also on the class schedule, and are all taught by volunteers, many of whom are also members.
Retired engineer Harvey Osgood, who is a member of the senior center, got involved as a volunteer 10 years ago.
“My wife of 25 years had died,” he said, admitting it had left him very depressed. “I needed something to do.”
He joined the center’s Grievance Committee. He helped bring over a discussion group from another senior center, a weekly, “Let’s Talk,” which is now moderated by another retired engineer, volunteer Alan McElroy.
Harvey also started a “Let’s Listen” monthly group, featuring guest speakers who share personal anecdotes or have a political slant — like Randy Credico — or voice neighborhood concerns — like Doris Diether — followed by discussion. And for the past two years, his “Let’s Jam” series has regularly brought five to 10 musicians to the center’s mezzanine room to play while seniors drift in and out at will.
Volunteers also run the Theater Club, calling for and picking up tickets for shows, and manning the center’s theater desk, providing tickets at a token price.
Volunteers also come from the more “organized” institutions. Computer pros, often from neighboring high schools, provide free assistance in the computer room. Chabad House holds three free holiday parties at the center each year. Corporate volunteers come and converse with the seniors once a month. New York University students also drop by to provide cross-generational conversation.
When she began as the center’s director, Marcera found volunteers through Craigslist.
“That’s the best!” she said, adding she also went to other local senior centers to recruit help.
Petite Anne DeSimone has volunteered at the senior center for 10 years. She walks six blocks — and four flights of a walk-up — to travel from her Village apartment to the center.
Twice a week, she’s at the front desk, making sure that all who enter sign in. A retired Department of Education teacher’s aide, she gave her age as “80 plus something.”
“I think it’s a good thing to help others,” she said. And, echoing the sentiments of the many other volunteers, she said, “I like to feel productive, and I like when I can do for someone else.”