Members of the Gresham Senior Center were smiling last weekend during the return of an annual fundraiser event — you could tell, even with the masks.
It was the third annual Gresham Senior Center Car Show and Fundraiser Sunday, Sept. 12, in the parking lot outside the Multnomah County East Building, 600 N.E. Eighth St. There were all sorts of classic cars, representatives from the Montavilla Sewing Center Quilts of Valor program, David Douglas Dad's Club members flipping burgers, and the Historical Automobile Club of Oregon displaying vehicles and judging the entries.
"It was wonderful to see the seniors again, it's nice to know they are ok," said Terry Ann Pullen, program manager.
All of it felt like a return to normal — and after a difficult year and a half filled with fears around the pandemic and the center tiptoeing close to a permanent shutdown, normal felt pretty good.
"People think what we do is free, but we are a separate entity (from the city) surviving on volunteers and donations," said Paul Nasiatka, center president.
Hope is beginning to return to the Senior Center. The gift shop is open, the popular Taiichi class is back as is line dancing, and the quilt room is open twice a week. All of those activities allow for proper distancing among participants to ensure the vulnerable population is safe during the recent surge and variants of COVID. Other activities, such as the game room and library, remain closed until the pandemic lets up.
"We are holding are own," Nasiatka said.
Despite the return of fundraising opportunities, the Senior Center is facing a serious shortfall that could cause issues down the road. In the current fiscal year, which runs through June 2022, the Senior Center forecasts a $33,000 budget deficit. While it won't force the center to close its doors, that discrepancy in funding will force it to dip into budget reserves.
"If we don't continue to hold fundraisers, we will continue to drain from those accounts," Pullen said.
Visitors to the center won't notice a difference, but if things don't even out those reserves will be gone in a few years. If that happens, the survivability of the center will be tested. "We need to get back to normal so we can continue running this place," Pullen said.
The pandemic hit the Gresham Senior Center hard, forcing the nonprofit organization to shutter its popular in-person events, including the 2020 car show; cancel all classes and group activities; and turn away seniors looking for a place to gather and enjoy a community that can be otherwise difficult to find.
The strength of the center, breaking the isolation many seniors face, was put on hold. And costs mounted during the pandemic. In February 2020, organizers were having tough conversations. The talk wasn't about how to survive, it was how long.
"We had to dilute our services and use all of our reserve funds to pay rent," Pullen said earlier this year, with tears in her eyes. "If this pandemic and shutdown continues, who knows what will happen."
But as the center stumbled into 2021, the community rallied to help. Private citizens and businesses, like Northwest Reverse Mortgage, cut checks to keep the lights on. Others stepped up as sponsors for events like the car show. Multnomah County, which operates as landlords for the center, footed the group's rent for several months to keep the seniors from being evicted. And, most stunningly, Senior Center member Jack Day donated $17,000 for a new quilting machine.
"My hope is the quilting machine will allow the ladies of the sewing room the opportunity to continue their love of quilting for others," Day said.
All of that has made a massive difference. "We cannot do anything without community support," said Midge Nasiatka, who manages the quilting room.
And though the center still faces that looming shortfall, they are optimistic about finding a path forward. "There has been more support from the community this year than ever before," Pullen said. "Some people send us $10 monthly checks to help, and for them to think about us every month is special."
Senior safe haven
The senior center is a place that brings people together. That is why Pullen first made her way to the nonprofit organization — she wanted someone to play cards with. After retiring at 70, she wanted to be around other people and stay active in the community.
"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."
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 unincorporated parts of the region.
The center is near mass transit stops for easy access; is neighbors with Meals on Wheels, which normally operates a lunchroom for seniors; and has resources like library, game room, classrooms, quilt room and more.
"For seniors who live independently not having the senior center would mean they wouldn't have somewhere to come and meet new people," Pullen said. "I keep getting phone calls from people asking when the trips will start back up."
For the center the immediate goals are to increase income and reduce expenses; add more volunteers; and continue to find innovative events to showcase the center. That will allow them to cut into that shortfall and survive the pandemic.
What has helped is a new, energetic board of directors after an election earlier this year. The board has brought lots of new ideas about fundraising events and ways to connect with the business community for sponsorships.
Following in the footsteps of the car show, the Gresham Senior Center will host a Holiday Bazaar from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, Oct. 27 and 28. That event will have items for sale from the people who stock the shelves of the gift shop. And there are more ideas swirling.
"We are looking forward to more events that bring together seniors and the community, all while supporting this place," Nasiatka said.
And the organizers of the Gresham Senior Center won't quit. They are dedicated to keeping the place open as a bastion for seniors across the region. Though it's been difficult with the pandemic, with a little help they believe they can survive.
"We appreciate all the support we get from the community, whether it be cash or material objects, because those things help keep us going," Nasiatka said. "This is about serving the community and seniors so they understand they are worthwhile and important to us."
The Gresham Senior Center is looking for donations — any amount can help keep the organization operating. Learn more at https://www.greshamseniorcenter.com
Make checks payable to the Gresham Senior Center and mail to:
Gresham Senior Center
600 N.E. Eighth St., Room 130
The center is a nonprofit organization — No. 93-0677386
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