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Tempers raged and emotions were raw last week when clients of the Williston Senior Center learned that major changes were coming Feb. 1 to the place they consider their home away from home.
The center, funded by grants from the Suwannee River Economic Council (SREC), has been meeting in the Thompson Hall at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church for more than 16 years.
According to Janice Owen, director of client services for SREC, the location is primarily for meal distribution to ensure seniors have access to hot, nutritious meals five days a week.
But to the 20 or so people who come to Thompson Hall, it’s more than a place to get food.
It’s the highlight of their day, the center of their social networking and they don’t want it changed one iota.
SREC notified the center, and its onsite director, Angela Neal, last week that the meal distribution site will move to Williston First Baptist Church and will only serve meals there two days a week.
As a result, Neal’s 20-hour-per week job will also be reduced to eight hours effective Feb. 1.
That information didn’t set well with the seniors who chanted, “Hell no, we won’t go!” when told of the impending changes.
“It’s more than a place to get food,” said Linda Buonomo, a longtime client. “It’s about the bonds and friendships that have formed. For some, this is the only outlet they have.”
Janet Berryhill from Bronson agrees and praises Neal for her compassion for the elderly.
“I’ve never known anyone with more compassion,” Berryhill said. “When people miss, she calls to find out why they’re missing. If they’re out for a while, she checks on them.”
Two of the biggest draws to the current site are twice a week bingo games and card games.
Neither will be allowed when the meal distribution moves to the Baptist Church.
Weekly they bring in their pennies in mason jars, cans or sacks and take their places waiting for Neal to call the game.
The seniors play penny bingo–each card costs 1 cent and most play 12 cards at a time for 12 cents.
If someone loses every game on any given day, they might lose $2, Neal said. If they’re the big winner, they might go home $6 richer.
But it’s not about the money, she stressed. “Nobody takes it seriously,” Neal said. It’s about the good natured jokes among the players and the teasing that accompanies a big win, she added.
“They don’t want to go down without a fight,” Neal said of the center’s clients. “They want answers.”
The answer, like most these days, is about one word: funding.
Owen said the SREC pays the electric, trash and telephone bills for the church’s fellowship hall.
Owen said the Williston site had been monitored for about a year and what was learned is seniors only use the services avidly two days a week.
It didn’t make good business sense Owen said to continue a five-day operation that wasn’t used while SREC paid about $350 toward Thompson Hall’s expenses.
The Baptist church has offered to let SREC distribute meals from its fellowship hall at no charge.
“And from our perspective,” Owen said, “this is strictly for meal distribution.”
It’s also critical, Owen said, that the food distribution be in compliance with the regulations set forth by the agency. That means that everyone is served the same meal every day–no choices like they’ve been getting.
The only exception, she said, is in the event of food allergies. Each client should have in his file what he cannot eat, Owen said, and in the case of allergies or sensitivities, substitions are made.
SREC services nine counties, and has five food sites in Levy County: Chiefland, Bronson, Inglis, Cedar Key and Williston. Only Chiefland serves five days a week; the others operate two.
Owen said in the other locations, only meals are served and the patrons use the meal time for socializing and conversation.
If bingo is played, Owen said, the clients play for food or donated prizes–not money.
“Each center has its own pulse,” she said.
With the moving date looming and so many clients unhappy with the decision, Owen added that SREC is trying to negotiate with St. Barnabas about possibly offering meal distribution there when its not being served at First Baptist.
Editor’s Note: The clients at the senior center sound off on the moving of the services. See page 7.