After a rocky beginning that included instructor resignations and a protest by several Island seniors, Lisa Fernandez, director of the Island’s Carter Burden senior center, is on a campaign to win over the Island’s seniors. Judging from the center’s growing membership, she may be succeeding.
The Carter Burden Center for the Aging (CB) took over the sponsorship of the Roosevelt Island Senior Center from its former sponsor, the Roosevelt Island Senior Association (RISA), on July 1, 2016, at the behest of the New York City Department for the Aging (DFTA). RISA continues as a separate volunteer-operated organization for seniors.
“The Department for the Aging wanted us to come and do what we’ve done in all of our other centers, which is to diversify the program,” says William Dionne, executive director of the group’s seven New York centers and 13 programs.
He and Fernandez say they do not know why a change in sponsorship was made and they don’t want to know. What they are excited about is the future.
Dionne’s only regret is how it happened. “If we would have had our wish, the process would have been very different, [but] it’s what the situation required.”
Carter Burden gets its budget from DFTA, which regularly evaluates performance based on strict matrixes and program evaluations. RISA had been paying two popular instructors well over the $30 per hour that CB budgets for instructors. CB had to let them go, angering many seniors. But Dionne says they looked at the budget they were given by DFTA and felt that using the lion’s share to pay two instructors would violate their agreement to provide a certain number of classes.
Dionne explains, “We as an organization felt very strongly that we cannot come in here subsidizing classes until we raise the money to do [so].” Fernandez adds, “Because of [our fiscal responsibility] we are able to take some of that budget money and get a jewelry instructor, or the knits & crochets class, and we have filled those [original] slots with exercise classes; it’s within our budget.”
The original exercise classes have since been restored with new instructors. Several additional classes, like yoga, have also been added. Fernandez could only compare the current class list with the week immediately preceding CB’s takeover, but she points out that there is more being offered now than there was then.
Fernandez has big plans for the center. One just has to see the attendance in the new jewelry-making class to see that her efforts are paying off. Fernandez says that the number of card-holding members and attendance in the new classes are growing quickly. But this is just the beginning. The center is testing social media and computer classes, and has partnered with Cornell Tech to modernize the center’s technology equipment.
“We have met with Cornell. They did a survey of our needs; they very much want to be a part of the future of the center. In addition to the computers we have, many of which need to be updated, we are looking at computers that would be appropriate for the disabled population, like we have elsewhere,” says Fernandez.
Another initiative headed by Fernandez aims to improve the food served at the center. When she came into the center, Fernandez decided to sample the food; she didn’t like what she tasted.
She began a dialogue with the caterer – who, she stresses, has been very cooperative – to improve the lunches. “We are required to serve 60 lunches, and we are selling out, and that,” she smiles, “is before we introduce our own cooking.”
At other CB centers, all cooking is done on-site. CB plans to renovate the kitchen and begin on-site cooking like they have at their other centers. “We are very well known for the quality of food we provide in our centers.”
Fernandez and Dionne see respect as an important component of a senior center, and to that end they hired permanent cleaning help to maintain the large space. Additionally, CB is planning minor renovations to provide a more welcoming entryway where seniors can be greeted and helped by the staff upon arrival.
An advisory council will be elected and made up of seniors who are members. CB invited RISA to become a part of it.
“Our dream moving forward,” Dionne states, “is to collaborate more [with RISA], because it doesn’t make sense not to.” Fernandez points to the collaboration with RISA in running parallel events at the center back in August, which brought cross-fertilization between the two entities.
Other organizations are welcome at the center, too, as demonstrated by the upcoming collaborative event with the Roosevelt Island Disabled Association.
Dionne and Fernandez are cautiously optimistic about their relationship with the Island: “[We] really do believe that… people will see what it is we bring to this scenario. We are very proud of our programs everywhere and this program has enormous potential and we have wonderful ideas for the future.”
Dionne adds, “We don’t only want the seniors to feel welcome, we want the Island to feel welcome.”
To join, seniors can go to the center, fill out an intake sheet where they choose what information to share, and get their DFTA card. Membership is free.