Will a Beloved Senior Center Close?

Agustina Candelario, 69, is the “quinceañera” of the group. She used to work at travel agencies before retiring and being diagnosed with diabetes. (Photo by Maritza Villela via El Diario)

Agustina Candelario, 69, is the “quinceañera” of the group. She used to work at travel agencies before retiring and being diagnosed with diabetes. (Photo by Maritza Villela via El Diario)

“After God, my happiness is here,” says Agustina Candelario, who at 69 is still called the “quinceañera” in a group of senior ladies who frequent the ARC XVI Fort Washington Senior Center.

Like Agustina, hundreds of older adults in Upper Manhattan feel a deep connection to the senior center because they enjoy time in good company, with healthy food, classes and social activities free of charge. But above all that, as Agustina says: “Here, we treat each other as family.”

The environment there is inviting: A group of ladies sitting at a round table enjoy a fresh cup of coffee with their breakfast as they hear merengue music. Still, the topic of discussion returns to their concern about the possibility of losing their “second home,” as one of them, Cristina Marroquín, 82, called it. They all fear that the center will close within three months. So far, no alternative plan to prevent this has been made known.

The Christ Church United Methodist, which owns the building where the center has been located for 16 years, will not renew their lease, ending Dec. 31.

“Given the deteriorating physical condition of our building, we are in the process of evaluating how to address its significant and extensive deferred maintenance needs (…) As a result, we regret that we are unable to renew long-term leases for ARC XVI,” stated the church via press release.

Christ Church United Methodist will continue to utilize a small part of the building for its worship services and for its new community center for new mothers. Rev. Stephen Bauman, from the church, said in a letter that “the necessary repairs are costly and we will continue to evaluate our options and the implications of possible investments.”

“If they close the center, they will take away half our life,” said Agustina, who, along with her friends, says that she does not know what she will do if they have to leave the space. Her whole family lives in the Dominican Republic. “I spend all day here because I live alone in a room.”

Blanca Aida, 92, describes herself as a “happy widow.” She has been coming to the ARC XVI Fort Washington Senior Center for 20 years. (Photo by Maritza Villela via El Diario)

Blanca Aida, 92, describes herself as a “happy widow.” She has been coming to the ARC XVI Fort Washington Senior Center for 20 years. (Photo by Maritza Villela via El Diario)

At 92, Blanca Aida, from Ecuador, is one of the eldest in the group. “Here, I share my sorrows and my joys,” she said, as other seniors came by to say hello. Aida is one of the ladies who has been coming to the center for more than 20 years. She also belongs to the Christ Church United Methodist, but, even after she expressed her concern to them on behalf of the seniors, “they say no and no. They have decided on it.”

Another lady in the group, Carmen Ventura, one of the more quiet ones, surprised her friends when she revealed her age. “She beat Blanca,” said the other ladies, who complimented her, saying that she did not look her 94 years of age. Ventura lives by herself, and says that she would not go to any center other than ARC XVI Fort Washington Senior Center. “If they take it away from me, I’ll stay home.”

The ARC XVI Fort Washington Senior Center has been open five days a week for more than four decades. One lady who does not miss one day is 92-year-old Blanca Peña, who, with a positive attitude, says that she expects to live 92 more years. “I don’t believe in politicians,” says Peña regarding the protests and petitions that a number of politicians from the area have made to save the center. One of them is New York state Sen. Adriano Espaillat, who has posted a petition on his website in support of the center.

Although they are of different ages and different nationalities, the ladies in the group have something in common: They hope for a miracle that allows them to stay in the center. As Agustina expressed it: “We are devastated, and praying to God that they don’t take away our place, because I found my happiness here.”

(Maritza Villela is a student at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.)

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  1. Pingback: Uptown Video: Last Christmas for a Senior Center? | Washington Heights, Inwood & Harlem Online | The Uptown Collective

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