It’s been a tumultuous few months for the Roosevelt Island Senior Association (RISA). Former RISA President Dolores Green stepped down in early June after a 16-year tenure and Barbara Parker was elected president. On June 30, the 37-year-old organization lost its Department for the Aging (DFTA) contract – and the attendant funding – to manage the Island’s Senior Center. On July 1, the Carter Burden Center for the Aging began managing the Senior Center, and RISA became a standalone organization.
Despite these upheavals, RISA’s new leadership says the group is focused on the future, with new initiatives, a broader vision, and, they hope, a clean slate. And the organization isn’t going anywhere.
“I don’t want to see an organization disappear if it doesn’t have to,” said newly appointed RISA Secretary Sherie Helstien.
A New Board
On a recent Friday morning, Parker, Helstien, and new board member Lorraine Altman sat at one of the picnic tables in the front room at the Senior Center to lay out their plans for RISA’s future.
“We are formulating a full board and plan on having a community meeting to build on the foundation of RISA history,” explains Parker. Parker was the secretary and outreach community liaison under former president Green and is credited with expanding the group’s membership.
“When I became secretary three years ago, 95% of the membership was from this building [546 Main Street]. I did community outreach in the other buildings to get more members from other parts of the Island. Now we have 185 current members from all corners of the Island.”
Parker says that shortly after being elected in June, she called on Helstien, longtime Island activist and vice president of the Roosevelt Island Residents Association, to join forces in her “rebranding, reorganizing, and revitalization” mission.
The group says they are planning to hold a general membership meeting on October 25 to introduct the new full board. They’re very much interested in involvement and feedback from both members and non-member Island seniors.
Room for Everyone
When asked about the Senior Center’s new management, the Carter Burden Center for the Aging, Parker says, “It could have been handled better.” But she insists that it’s all water under the bridge. They say they are looking forward to cooperating more with Carter Burden in the future; they hope to work together and share the space and hours to bring original programming to Island seniors.
RISA has opened up membership to more Islanders by adopting the AARP’s guidelines, accepting adults ages 50 and up. Membership dues will remain at $15 per year. “RISA is a dues-paying organization and always has been,” says Parker. “Yearly membership runs from April 1 through March 31, and members can attend most of our events for free.”
Parker says the group will continue offering popular RISA benefits, like senior discounts at local merchants including Fuji East, Piccolo Trattoria, Island Wine & Spirits, and Wholesome Market.
“I started [the discount program] two years ago,” Parker says. “It’s not for all seniors; it’s for RISA members and it is in effect and growing.” She says RISA will be adding more store partnerships and discounts in the coming months. “Members must show their 2016 orange and white membership card to receive these discounts,” adds Parker.
Parker is optimistic about the group’s potential. She thinks that being a standalone organization allows them “to partner and include more populations.”
For one, the new board is focusing on active older adults, which Parker calls “AOA’s,” as well as what they call “special populations,” like the disabled, people suffering from Multiple Sclerosis, Arthritis, and those recovering from strokes.
Classes will include a variety of fitness, intellectual, and practical workshops like the recent elder law seminar on wills and estates. Parker says that the next elder law seminar will focus on Medicare and Medicaid.
Practical workshops are free to everyone, while specialized programming is free for members with a nominal fee for non-members.
In 2017 Parker and her team are planning to expand RISA’s offerings to include day trips, and movies. Parker is particularly excited about “Wine and Design,” a fee-based program that combines wine and art evenings.
RISA will also continue their seasonal gardening program, Potluck Patio Gardening, which runs from May through October, for which they partner with the Roosevelt Island Garden Club and the Girls Scouts. According to Parker, this program is not impacted by Carter Burden’s takeover of the Center because “the garden is still RISA property, not Carter Burden, and we compost.”
RISA is renewing the pilot exercise program, recently ended, which brought back two popular teachers and their exercise classes. These classes were pulled from the calendar when Carter Burden took over the management of the Senior Center. Both instructors had been paid $40 an hour by RISA in the past, but because Carter Burden pays their instructors $30 an hour, the teachers couldn’t afford to stay.
According to Parker, “[Instructor] Rob’s class took up both rooms and was always full.” Because of his popularity, RISA is now able to pay him $50 per hour for his Building Strength class by charging seniors $27 for an 8-week program. They credit Doryne Isely of Roosevelt Landings for being “instrumental in getting more class time, as well as helping accommodate evening access to the Senior Center.”
Helstien and Parker intend to apply for Public Purpose Funds and other grants “to pay for teachers, other programs, larger events, and special population programing.”