Brother William Geenen turned the “Me Decade” into the “We Decade” for Sarasota area seniors.
One quick way to get a sense of how important Senior Friendship Centers are to this community is to drive down Brother Geenen Way just about any weekday afternoon. It’s a short little street that runs from Osprey Avenue to S. Washington Boulevard. You’ll likely have to look hard to find a parking space. Enter the main building and you’ll immediately see why.
The place is packed with seniors having a good time. Some are dancing to the live music that happens every weekday afternoon. Others are shooting pool with their usual cronies. Many are sitting and chatting, enjoying each other’s company and priceless companionship.
There are classes on subjects from balance and movement to Mahjong, hula aerobics to woodworking. There’s a Wii game (yes, seniors do that), a library with a Dakim Brain Fitness workstation and a dining room.
Now, go to the Rubin Center for Healthy Aging at the east end of the campus. It is just as busy, serving individuals who might otherwise have no access to medical and dental services. Walk to the west end and you can visit the Living Room building that houses the Adult Day Care Program and the Caregiver Resource Center.
You have seen a lot, but it is really only the proverbial tip of the iceberg. And all of it springs from the vision of one man, the late Brother William Geenen, CSC, a Holy Cross brother who originally came to Sarasota to recruit students for the school where he was teaching.
He observed that there were virtually no activities, health care or ongoing education programs for the retirees who were congregating here; sensed their loneliness; and felt he could do something for them. He got permission from his order to relocate here and arrived with $79 in his pocket, not knowing a soul.
It was 1973, when Brother Geenen set forth upon his mission of “People Helping People” and founded Senior Friendship Centers. Part of his genius was understanding that a volunteer providing a service often benefits as much as the person receiving it. “Volunteering is friendship in action” is a foundational belief of the organization. You see it virtually everywhere you look; those musicians are volunteers, for example, as are the doctors and dentists in the Rubin Center.
This year, celebrating their 40th anniversary, Senior Friendship Centers are an international model for serving older adults. They were, for example, one of four worldwide locations recently visited by Korean National Television for a documentary on how to deal with their aging population.
The Centers have seven locations in six counties plus satellites like the one in Newtown, and numerous programs offering in-home services. In 2011, the latest year for which figures are available, they provided health services to 25,684 clients and served 158,199 group-dining meals. There were 132,157 visits to the centers, 158,976 home delivered meals and 89,467 hours of adult day care. The Caregiver Resource Centers served 366 clients and conducted 150 support sessions and 174 education programs.
The challenge for Senior Friendship Centers has never been finding a market for their programs. That crowded parking lot says it all; there is more demand today than ever before.
The Centers’ challenge is, and always has been, funding. Their revenue derives roughly one third each from governmental contracts, program fees and donations. Within the 30% that comes from donations, in-kind professional services account for 21% and funds only 9%. These are unfortunate proportions at a time when contracts and fees are declining and the needs of a larger senior population are growing.
At 40, then, Senior Friendship Centers face a challenging mid-life transition: how to build a broader base of awareness and financial support without diminishing their focus on promoting health, dignity and quality of life throughout the journey of aging. Fortunately, they face it in a community known for its generosity, with determination and persistence imbued in their culture by Brother Geenen.
To learn more about how Senior Friendship Centers can help you, visit friendshipcenters.org or call 955-2122. To learn more about how you can help, call Francine Diemer at 556- 3240.