Thursday, March 11, 2010

City Living: Senior centers draw heavily on fundraisers amid budget cuts


A group of seniors watches a blues band perform during the Central Area Senior Center's "Bite of New Orleans" catfish dinner on March 6. The center, which serves over 1,200 members, offers a variety of educational and recreational programs varying from computer classes to guitar lessons. (Click here to watch a video of the blues guitar performance from the Central Area Senior Center's catfish dinner.)

While the recession economy has forced governmental budget cuts affecting many traditionally well-funded programs, many of the city’s senior centers are not only surviving but avoiding programming reductions by bridging the financial gaps themselves.

“When the dust clears, the budget cuts didn’t affect the senior centers as much as it seems,” said Denise Klein, Senior Services Executive Director. “In fact, some centers got money from the United Way for the first time. I’m sure there were a few takeaways—a couple of the centers that offer adult day health were affected by the state and county budgets. But overall, it’s kind of a wash.”

About half of Senior Services’ $15 million annual budget traditionally comes from all levels of taxpayer-based sources—federal, state, city and county governments—but they also draw significantly from the United Way, fees, and donations gathered through fundraising efforts.

And though senior centers in both the University District and Wallingford have closed in recent years, seven still continue to operate in Seattle with average memberships ranging from 600 to over 1,200. In total, 40 centers exist under the Senior Services umbrella.

However, other King County senior centers have had a harder time softening the blow without the benefit of Seattle’s city funding—especially when it comes to day health programs for disabled seniors.

“Our King County funding was reduced in half this year, from $50,000 to $24,500, and the year before that the support we received through the county for adult day health was eliminated,” said Amara Oden, director of the Sno-Valley Senior Center. “We’re scrambling to make up that difference so we don’t have to make choices that impact the seniors we serve.“

While the funding reduction from the county was significant, even that didn’t cause the program to close. The Sno-Valley Center—which boasts 600 regular members and serves more than 2,000 seniors in Carnation annually—is now considering raising their fees, and like many other centers is pursuing new fundraising opportunities. Some centers have found success hosting golf tournaments and business luncheons, while others run thrift stores or write government grants.

“All senior centers spend way too much of their time fundraising,” said Klein. “I asked all of the center directors what their biggest challenge was in 2009, and each one said that it was some aspect of fundraising. They have to figure out how to get more and more creative, especially when it comes to starting new kinds of fundraisers and attracting younger people.”
However, some see a silver lining on the hard work required for senior centers to bridge the budget gap.

“With these cuts, we’ve had to generate the revenue ourselves,” said Rick Joseph, Central Area Senior Center board president. “When you expect that the money is always going to be there, it takes away from being self sufficient. So in a way, this has been a blessing in disguise.”

While not all directors and board members might agree with Joseph, none will argue the importance of senior centers to its constituents. According to several directors, they’ve seen firsthand that seniors are hurting in the economic climate—instead of having a solidified retirement, many turn to the centers as a way to supplement their limited income with and make ends meet. Amid budget cuts, they’re being forced to consider the possibility of seniors with more needs than ever meeting an inability to meet them.

“It’s important to keep making sure that seniors have their piece of the financial pie,” said Thurston Muskelly, former board president of the Central Area Senior Center. “Any time you have budget shortfalls, social programs are always cut. But these are people who built this city, paid into social security, worked in the factories during World War II—there’s a lot of sacrifice here. Now they need to be rewarded for their deeds, and this is part of their reward.”

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