Thursday, January 29, 2009

Forest Park Senior Center Funding Woes Puts Seniors at Risk

By Patricia Adams

A struggling economy and a “stretched to the limit” budget continue to threaten the delivery of crucial city services. But at the Forest Park Senior Center, patrons and directors are not only worried about ‘money problems future’. It seems they’re still plagued by ‘money problems past’---they haven’t received funding to run this year’s program, the money for which was promised from last year’s pot of money.

The center’s longtime director, Donna Catalbiano, says that the need for the money was close to forcing the doors shut. Out of almost $250,000 promised to the center through state and city money, including $100,000 from the Office of the Borough President, Catalbiano still hadn’t received anything.

But on Monday Catalbiano got a call from the State Department of Aging to inform her that the city funding from the office of the Borough President is being released. And so for the Forest Park Senior Center, help is on the way. With one crucial piece of the funding puzzle having been pieced together, Catalbiano says she is now working to get access to the other funds. “The $100,000 that’s coming from the city has to be used by June 30.” After that Catalbiano says, “the money is lost.”

Another large sum of funding the center is waiting for is a $75,000 allocation from the state Senate originally put in place by Serf Maltese. “We need to get that money down here as well,” said Catalbiano. The discrepancy she says is that the state has said that there are paperwork issues and that is why she hasn’t received the funding.

Senator Joseph Addabbo, who replaced Maltese with a November election victory, told The Forum that “The center has not lost the money. Once the paperwork is settled, my office will be happy to expedite the processing and get this funding where it belongs.” The new deadline for filing is February 2. Sen. Addabbo said his office is also available to help with the paperwork should the center need any assistance. Another $45,000 in member items, $30,000 from Assemblyman Anthony Seminerio and an additional $15,000 from Maltese still hangs in the balance but for now, the center will remain operational, without the threat of closure hanging over its head.

But even as the immediate threat of closing down fades away, the regular crowd of those who flock to the center three to four days a week, are still deeply upset with even the slightest possibility that they could lose what some say is the reason for existing.

Mary Galante, 82, spoke frankly about the center’s problems. “We’re not getting funded. That means the center will close. This is our second home.” Mary lives in the area and comes to the center faithfully four days every week. “I don’t know what I would do. I live alone and this is what I have to look forward to. This is family.”

She has been coming to the center for 18 years and says that so many wonderful friendships have been forged over the years. “If someone doesn’t show up for the day we call to see what happened and if everything is ok. We look out for each other. If someone is sick or in the hospital we call and send cards. And when someone passes away,” Mary explains, “we know about it and we deal with it together.”

The sentiment seems to flow through the room where everyone is accepted. An introduction by Mary to friends Tony Parisi, 86 and his wife Maria, 84 revealed that the couple has also been coming to the center for the past 17 years. “We walk 17 blocks to get here,” said Tony. “The exercise is good. This is my wife, Maria, today is her birthday,” he says with a loving gaze. Tony is well known throughout the center for his singing which he shows off usually on a Wednesday when the band is around. Tony and his wife often share a spot on the dance floor on Wednesday afternoons.

“You know, it would be so hard without the center,” Mary said. “It would be so boring. I mean your kids come to visit you but it’s not the same. You need your friends. And you need a place to hang out.” In the middle of explaining why the center is so important Mary is interrupted by Tony ---it’s time to serenade his beautiful wife for her birthday. Of course everyone joins in.

Hanging out senior-style at the Forest Park Center includes bingo, cards, trivia, movies, music, dancing, eating , sharing stories, and of course the opportunity to spend time with some very colorful characters. Take Louie “Cassanova” for instance. The 83-year-old travels by bus from his home in Ozone Park to get to the center everyday. “I come for the girls,” he quips. A smile on his face is quickly replaced with a stare that reflects what he is thinking---that the center may one day close because of budget problems.

But it seems that here there is a spirited group of seniors who stick together and whose friendships are prepared to outlast any financial crisis that comes their way. That spirit may best be personified by 83-year-old legally blind, Joseph Palladino, the notorious “Kissing Bandit.”

“Ask me for my business card,” Joe says, “come on and ask me.” And of course you fall for it. “OK Joe, may I please have your business card?” Suddenly you are being hugged and a kiss is planted on your cheek. In your hand you will find a white card with a red rose on it. It reads, you have been kissed by the notorious Joseph Palladino. Have you received your Vitamin K today? Vitamin K—kisses. Please don’t call 911. Call Joe.

Joe, Mary, Tony, Maria Louie and all of their friends may not have a wealth of funding but they have certainly found riches within each other and in their home away from home.

1 comment:

E. Chang said...

Great story, what an jovial group of seniors there and I'm glad they got that much needed funding.