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Justin Watson, who replaced Kathy Innocenti, welcomes grants as well as donations from the community.

PMG PHOTO: SCOTT KEITH - Justin Watson replaces longtime executive director Kathy Innocenti at the St. Helens Senior Center. To fill the shoes of retired St. Helens Senior Center executive director Kathy Innocenti is a big task, but newly installed executive director Justin Watson is ready for the responsibilities.

In an interview with the Spotlight, Watson explained the challenges ahead for the center, including the need for more volunteers and donations.

Heading into the fall and winter months, Watson is pleased with the health of the senior center, but he said there's always a need for help from the community.

"We are constantly looking for donations, and we're constantly looking for more drivers, because we are a nonprofit," Watson said. "A lot of things that we do, we operate off of donations and volunteers. We're just looking for some community members who are willing to give a couple days a month commitment."

Looking at the long term, Watson said, "I do see the senior center's health being stable, (but) it's going to be a constant fight every single month."

As an example, it's always a challenge to ask for and receive grant money to help the senior center, and those grants can only go so far.

"Grants are typically written and received for specific projects," Watson said. "Those things don't necessarily go for your operating costs or your food costs."

Watson noted that one way to help the senior center is to volunteer as a driver.

"They're extremely important," he said, noting that home-delivered meals are a priority. "Our drivers drive our 10 routes between the city of St. Helens and the city of Scappoose."

Watson added, "It's really important that we have drivers, because many times, that's the one type of socialization that our older individuals who are homebound may get. It really goes into their health and well-being.

"Overall, the objective is to make sure that we are serving those who are food-insecure, so that we're reducing that phenomenon in our community."

Along with delivery, the senior center is also always looking for more help preparing meals.

"Our kitchen is really dynamic," Watson said. "We ask for volunteers to come into our kitchen as well and help with the production and packing of the food."

According to Watson, food prep is performed about a half a day ahead of time, while cooking takes place the day of the meal.

At the St. Helens Senior Center, congregate meals are served five days per week, beginning at noon. Those who cannot gather in person for meals inside the center can sign up to receive meals delivered to their home.

Volunteers can also help in less specific ways.

"We're looking for folks to bring different ideas into the senior center," Watson said. "A lot of our programs are headed by volunteers that are interested in something — for example, belly dancing or tai chi."

Watson added, "They have come to us and worked with us with the calendar. We've made it accessible to them. The groups just grow and grow from there."

Watson is happy to report that the St. Helens Senior Center is receiving a $25,000 state grant from the Oregon Department of Human Services.

"We are going to upgrade our kitchen and we're going to upgrade our home-delivered meals program with that," Watson said. "We are looking for ways to have better hot bags to keep food at reasonably sustained temperatures or even hotter."

Even though the center is still in the process of receiving the grant money, Watson said, "We've already started a number of upgrades between here and Top Notch. Proceeds from the Top Notch Thrift Store help fund the senior center.

Watson is feeling confident in his new role with the St. Helens Senior Center.

"The community has really embraced me being here," he said. "The temperature of the senior center is looking on the up-and-up."

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