PAWTUCKET — Instead of “yellow ribbons around the old oak tree,” the Central Falls Happy Seniors tied white ribbons around utility poles on several city streets on Friday to protest recent cuts in services at the Ralph J. Holden Community Center.
A group of 16 or so members of the senior citizens group fanned out along Cowden, Broad and Dexter streets armed with ribbons that read “Save Our Center.” The action is meant to catch the attention of city officials and local and state government leaders in an effort to have the cutbacks restored, as well as to find money to maintain a community center that they say is badly in need of repair.
The Happy Seniors have also launched a petition drive, and recently sent letters outlining the community center's plight to President Barack Obama, and Congressmen Sheldon Whitehouse and Jack Reed.
Late last month, State Receiver Robert G. Flanders Jr. announced several staff reductions, cutbacks in hours and other operational changes at the community center at 361 Cowden St. to slash in half a deficit of $66,327. The changes included the lay-off of eight part-time employees, plus a cutback in hours and the elimination of two days of seniors' transportation. Additionally, breakfast services and a before-school child care program were eliminated and the pool was closed.
According to the seniors, it is the loss of two days of transportation that hurts the most, followed by the closure of the pool. Several who spoke to the Times pointed out that many of the city's seniors depend on the bus transportation, which is now down to Monday, Wednesday and Friday, for doctor's appointments, shopping, getting to the community center for socialization and other errands. Many of the seniors also regularly used the pool for water aerobics classes and daily swimming.
Sandra McGee, a member of the Happy Seniors, said that while she and others understand there is a budget problem in Central Falls, she questions why the city's main “senior center” had to be so severely hit. “I think they could have found the money somewhere,” she stated.
McGee pointed out that there are still plenty of property owners paying taxes in the city, and also noted that Central Falls “has not had to pay a teacher for the past 20 years.” “Where did all the money go? That's what I'd like to know,” said McGee. “The taxpayers of this city are not getting their money's worth.”
McGee said that besides the seniors, the community center provides a place for the city's youth to go after school. “This is going to lead to more kids hanging out on the streets,” she stated.
Rita Therriault, another Happy Seniors member who helped organize the protest, said she hoped the white ribbons would cause local officials to take notice. “We wanted to say 'look at us. See our white ribbons. Give our seniors a place to eat, and to socialize, and get our kids off the street,'” she stated.
Therriault said that for the transportation issue, in particular, she has taken it upon herself to refer seniors to other places that offer the service, such as Channel One. “There are people who need this service to get to their doctor appointments,” she said.
Therriault said the group has met with the Holden Center's executive director, Ana Soares, as well as several individuals from the Mayor's Office about the cutbacks, but feels they are not getting any real commitments. “They have told us that maybe they can work things out, but nothing seems to be happening,” she said. “It seems like this new judge just doesn't care.”
Mary Viens, a 90-year-old, lifelong resident of Central Falls, said she previously used the transportation to eat lunch and take part in community center activities Monday through Friday, and is now only able to get there three days a week. She said she has had to find another place to eat on Tuesdays and Thursdays. “I like to go there to have my lunch and to play cards. I don't know what I'd do without this place here,” she said.
Doris Provost, another longtime resident who regularly uses the community center, noted that the center's senior advisor, whose job was to tell seniors about medical insurance, food stamps and other assistance programs and resources, quit her job and was never replaced.
Provost also said that the community center's pool, currently closed for a mechanical issue, is used by young and old residents alike. However, she said there has been a persistent problem with moisture and mold at the center ever since a new heating/ventilation/air conditioning system was installed four years ago as part of a $4 million renovation project.
McGee also pointed to the $4 million project, done through federal funding that was obtained through the efforts of former Congressman Patrick Kennedy, as being behind some of the larger issues that are plaguing the community center. According to a sign on the outside of the center, the work was done by Alhambra Building Company and Newport Collaborative Architects.
McGee also maintained that the HVAC system has never functioned properly and has led to some other building problems that now require renovation and repair. She and others worry that the Holden Center will close permanently, leaving the city's seniors and youth without some important resources.
Noting the money that is being paid to the receiver, Flanders, as well as to Mayor Charles Moreau under the receivership scenario, McGee and Provost reiterated their belief that either the city, the state or the federal government—or some combination thereof--should be able to come up with funding to restore the programs and services that were cut.
Ana Soares, executive director of the Holden Center, was out of the office on Friday afternoon, and several attempts to reach someone in City Hall to comment about the situation were also unsuccessful.
When the cutbacks were first announced, Soares had acknowledged that many of the community center's seniors were upset, especially at the closure of the pool. However, she also pointed out that the center's senior program, which includes the lunchtime meals, would continue from noontime on and that seniors would still be provided with assistance on food stamps, medical and other resources.
Soares had also said that the community center's after-school child care would continue with consolidated staffing.