On Friday afternoon, it was time to party!
Olga Colon, Maria Merced, and over a hundred seniors feasted, swapped stories, and boogied to "Twist and Shout" as they celebrated University Settlement's Neighborhood Center's 45th Anniversary. US threw the shindig to honor a thriving community for older adults that is more critical now than ever.
Seniors are one of the fastest-growing and most vulnerable populations in New York City; nearly 20% live in poverty. By 2030, 1.3 million seniors will live in NYC – a population roughly the size of Dallas, TX. The US Neighborhood Center helps members avoid the pitfalls of isolation, malnutrition, depression and homelessness by offering meals, mental health services and activities that help our older neighbors continue to live with dignity and vitality.
It started in 1971. The Lower East Side was a troubled, often dangerous neighborhood. Older adults struggled to make ends meet, faced hunger and poor nutrition. Local activists took action to provide meals but they quickly realized they needed help – and University Settlement jumped to their assistance.
"We didn't have the educational background or resources to continue that small food program," remembers Maria, then a community activist. "The population of seniors was growing. There was no place for them to go in the neighborhood."
US spent the next 15 years collaborating and building a hub to help participants live rich, energetic lives. By 1987, the Center offered parties, daytrips and film screenings to help members stay active. Staff phoned 100 homebound seniors daily to keep them in touch with people outside their homes. And social work and medical interns teamed up to prevent depression, suicide and physical illness.
Olga spent her life as an activist, organizing to improve the Lower East Side. She became a spirited US Neighborhood Center community member in 1987 when she joined the US team, working in our kitchen. "This became my second home. I've been coming here ever since," says Olga.
Maria's mother worked through a period of depression by staying active at the US Neighborhood Center. "She wanted medication," remembers Maria. "I said, 'Mom, you're going back to the Center.' And she started to get better."
Today's US Neighborhood Center is adapting in a New York City that's rapidly gentrifying, increasingly expensive, and has a booming senior population. The Center offers low-cost field trips all over the city and ballroom dancing classes 8 times a week – an effective way to socialize and exercise, all for free. We placed our eviction prevention program – Project Home – in the same building to help our neighbors stay in their homes. US has also expanded its senior programming to new sites on the Lower East Side.
As we wish the US Neighborhood Center a Happy 45th Anniversary, Olga's and Maria's stories remind us of the tangible difference senior programming makes in helping people carry on lives full of friends, activity, and vigor.
You can experience the University Settlement Neighborhood Center's 45th Anniversary Gala by visiting our Facebook page!