Save East County's senior center
Terry Ann Pullen first made her way to the Gresham Senior Center because she wanted someone to play cards with.
She had retired from a job working for the Transportation Security Administration at the age of 70, and wanted to be around other people. During her initial visits to the center, she learned they were looking for some help in the office. So, drawing on her experience as a part-time travel agent, Pullen began coordinating some of the popular day trips.
"The senior center is a safe haven for anyone in the community who is looking for something to do or someone to meet," Pullen said. "There are so many opportunities for all sorts of people."
Pullen has since been hired as the program manager for the Gresham Senior Center — the only paid position — and is working alongside others to desperately find solutions for the loomin financial difficulties facing the organization.
The Gresham Senior Center is, in many ways, a misnomer as it serves much more than just Gresham. The nonprofit organization has been welcoming seniors from all of East Multnomah County for more than half a century, with members from Gresham, Fairview, Troutdale, Wood Village, Corbett, Boring and unicorporated parts of the region.
The center has been located in the Ambleside Center of the East Multnomah County Building, 600 N.E. Eighth St., for nearly two decades.
Their main support comes via Multnomah County, through a 75% rent subsidy, which allows the organization to offer programs, meals and companionship to local seniors. But that still leaves about $5,000 in expenses every month — and right now the center does not have any steady donations or income to offset those costs. All their usual fundraisers and donation events were canceled last year due to COVID-19 safety measures. In 2020, the center was only bringing in about $200-300 a month.
The senior center is attempting to increase income and reduce expenses; add more volunteers; and bring in new members to the board of directors.
There are no easy solutions to the organization's current financial instability, unless new partnerships are formed. That task has been the main focus for President Paul Nasiatka, who was brought onboard in December. The senior center does not receive any money from the federal or state government, nor any support from other cities in East Multnomah County.
So the question on the mind of those running the senior center: If they are providing a crucial service to older community members who have nowhere else to go, why aren't elected officials and municipalities pitching in?
"I'm not trying to holdup the cities for tons of money," Nasiatka said. "People think what we do is free, but we are a separate entity surviving on volunteers and donations."
Center for service
The Gresham Senior Center's mission is to provide opportunities and connections for seniors to remain active in their community.
The group shatters the isolation that plagues older residents, with many new members attending after a loved one has passed. Members are encouraged to participate in a wide variety of education, recreation and social programs. On an average day — when a global pandemic hasn't shuttered the globe — the center would welcome more than 200 seniors ages 50 and older. For many, that is their only social connection within the community.
"We ask for donations, but we don't charge for anything," Nasiatka said.
The senior center has a community area, classrooms, a library and game lounge, teaching kitchen, exercise room and computer room.
"Everyone is excited to come back when they can," Pullen said.
A decade ago, the senior center was thriving, with more than 6,000 members and eight paid employees. And while the passion still burns brightly, there are currently only 2,000 members and a single paid employee.
None of this would have been a concern without the pandemic, as the team had to cancel the usual fundraisers and events that play a key role in the supporting the organization.
Once things go back to normal, the senior center can return to relying on creative and fun events to bring in donations and sales. They host a One Dollar Rummage Sale; Wellness Fair; Mother's Day Tea Celebration; Book Sale; a Holiday Bazaar; and so much more.
One of the newest traditions has been an annual Car Show, held in the parking lot outside the building. The hope is to bring that back in September, depending on how things go with the pandemic.
In the meantime, the center has to continue to gut programs and purchases, like directing money earmarked for a new quilting machine in the sewing room, to instead be used for ongoing expenses. The senior center is also looking at renewing its lease, dropping from a 5-year deal to a yearly agreement. They are facing a 3% increase in costs.
If nothing changes, the Gresham Senior Center should have enough funds on hand to stay afloat until June. Then things get a bit dicey — and leaders of the organization will face some difficult conversations about what the future holds. While there is no desire or plan to leave their current space, especially with the reasonable deal the county is giving on rent, there are fears around what programs will have to be slashed to make ends meet.
"Right now we have to dilute our services and use all of our funds to pay rent," Pullen said. "If this pandemic and shutdown continues, who knows what will happen."
History of helping
In the late 1960s, Gresham had become concerned about the lack of options for seniors.
Spearheaded by religious, business and community leaders, the East Multnomah County Council on Aging was formed through a grant that also provided funds to run a senior center in 1965.
The new center was located on the corner of Main Avenue and Powell Boulevard, on the edge of downtown Gresham. The senior center provided social services for those who before, had to travel to downtown Portland for help.
In 1969, the group moved to its second home in a building owned and provided rent-free by a former Gresham mayor. With the added space, the center started hosting classes and dances. A local committee of 15 volunteered, called Gresham Seniors Untied, supervised the activities.
Meals started at the center in the beginning of 1971. They were prepared at Edgefield Manor, a now-closed nursing home in Troutdale, and delivered to the center. Meals on Wheels began a few years later, providing food to seniors unable to make their way to the center. The most popular events were the Wednesday Potlucks, when normal meal service was unable to be delivered, often drawing 300 people.
In 1973, Multnomah County bought the building where the center was located and made some helpful changes. The county paid for a complete remodel of the building and gave the center more space on the ground floor. At the time, the center had 6,000 members and an eight member paid staff. Grant money from the county paid for the space, staff and operation costs. Gresham Seniors United paid for the activities and any extra things needed.
Around 1980, senior center members decided to break from the county. Government funding had dried up, and Gresham Seniors United wanted to be an independent organization. The county still provided the building to the seniors free of charge until 1994, but everything was strictly run by volunteers.
The senior center shared the ground floor with Loaves and Fishes, who served meals at the center five days a week. The center had more than 25 classes, programs and health services each week, and more than 2,600 members.
In 2001, the center moved into the new county building being built on Eighth Street — where it is currently located. The new space at the Ambleside Center was the focal point for senior, disability and health services for the entire county.
The senior center wants to return to that level of support within the community, because everyone involved with the organization is passionate about helping older residents within East Multnomah County.
"All we are looking for is some support from the city for the services we provide," Nasiatka said. "We also want to thank the county for their support."
Nasiatka spoke during a Gresham City Council meeting last month. He plans to do the same in Troutdale, Fairview and Wood Village in the near future.
The ask is simple — any kind of support that will take the burden off the volunteers at the center and allow them to focus their efforts on providing for local seniors. That could be money to pay the bills; technical support to help with grant writing; or volunteers to put on events and work at the desk.
The organization is also seeking corporate sponsors to help host events.
"We are trying to revitalize the senior center and get it back to where it should be," Nasiatka said.
So far it is individuals who are making the difference. In a January newsletter to members of the center, Nasiatka spelled out the financial situation. He wrote about the struggles in meeting bills, and how much the center means to all the volunteers.
In response, the Gresham Senior Center has received more than $800 in private donations since Jan. 1.
"Thank you for opening your heart and sharing with the seniors," Pullen said, becoming emotional when speaking about the donations being made. "We have people donating $10 every month even when they really can't afford to. They want to help the community and be a part of all this."
The Gresham Senior Center is looking for donations to help get through the next few months. Any amount can help keep the organization operating.
Make checks payable to the Gresham Senior Center and mail to:
Gresham Senior Center
600 N.E. 8th St., Room 130
Gresham, OR 97030
The center is a nonprofit organization — #93-0677386
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