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Sarasota Thursday, Feb. 18, 2010 11 years ago

MY VIEW: Friendship Centers: our biggest secret


What a place.

The Senior Friendship Centers is an organization that helps people in six counties. Its sprawling home campus on Mound Street is certainly visible. It serves some 10,000 adults annually. It “employs” 1,000-plus volunteers in Sarasota, more elsewhere and places 6,000 more in 490 other non-profits. But its many contributions to the community are not well known.

Some of the stories are dramatic, none more so than one from a City Commission hearing a few years back. Professionals in suits and ties were there to request a variance. But it was a gentleman from the audience who won the day. He told the commissioners if they needed to know what the center did, they should look in his mouth.

He had been homeless, toothless and penniless until he got a set of dentures from the SFC clinic. Then he got a job, a place to live and a life.

Most of the stories are not so theatrical. But visit the Friendship Center Café at lunchtime, and you’ll see seniors who would otherwise be eating alone or not eating at all enjoying a nourishing, hot meal and the even-more-nourishing company of people.

Or show up around 1 p.m. and watch the doors open again and again for those who time their arrival to when the music starts. They listen, they talk, they dance — they make human contact.

Or check out a caregiver support group. Imagine yourself responsible for a beloved family member crippled by Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s and totally dependent on you. You feel alone and powerless. But here you discover that there are resources out there and people to help you access them.

In the simplest terms, SFC accentuates the positives of aging. Its mission is “empowering individuals, families and communities through healthy and supportive aging services and community engagement.” It takes a little digging to get at just what that means.

SFC talks about three tiers of services. “Community engagement” keeps senior citizens contributing members of the community. It finds them meaningful volunteer work and the opportunity to feel useful. And aren’t they (we) entitled to that?

“Healthy aging” is about keeping seniors’ minds and bodies active and healthy. It includes everything from classroom education ($2 to $3 per class) to travel programs, from medical and dental clinics and fitness activities to pure pastimes such as Wii games.

Senior Friendship Centers has its own way of doing things. For an audience that may misread “Wii” as “World War II,” a sign over the monitor says “We.” And all these healthy aging programs, including the clinics, have exactly one staff person. Everything else is done by volunteers — including the doctors and dentists.

SFC’s third category, “supportive aging,” includes adult day programs where participants are looked after so their caregivers can do what they need to do.

Care management and in-home services help people stay in their homes, and Friendship Meals-On-Wheels delivers food and a friendly smile.

There is more, and it may be that the scope and diversity of the Senior Friendship Centers are both its greatest asset and its greatest obstacle. It’s a lot to take in. Plus, it’s a truism of fundraising that it is just plain tough to get financial support for seniors programs. That’s both sad and ironic, especially in Sarasota.

Senior Friendship Centers’ priorities lie in the services it provides to its beneficiaries. At the same time, it needs a broader base of awareness and financial support, especially in economic times that are disproportionately challenging for older adults. At present, 58% of SFC funds come from government contracts and grants and 42% from individual gifts. SFC would like to see those figures reversed, and it needs to quintuple its $5 million endowment.

This is stuff that shouldn’t be secret. To learn more about how Senior Friendship Centers can help you, visit or call 556-3206. To learn more about how you can help, call Dennis Stover at 556-3224.

Molly Schechter is the social editor for The Observer Group and a resident of Longboat Key.


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