State budget mess causes senior centers to close

Pearl Hirsch and Joyce Kalmer perform during a birthday celebration at the Western Egyptian Senior Center in Waterloo. (Corey Saathoff photo)

Due to the lack of a state budget, Western Egyptian Economic Opportunity Council senior center locations in Waterloo, Columbia, Red Bud and other communities across the region will cease operations at the close of business on Friday.

“We’re just out of money,” Waterloo senior center director Kim Elizalde said.

The majority of funding for senior centers comes from the Federal Older Americans Act, but this money first goes to the state. As Illinois lawmakers remain at an impasse on a fiscal year 2016 budget, these and other funds are being held up.

“At this time, we have no way of knowing how long it will be before Western Egyptian receives any funding for the programs we operate,” WEEOC executive director Paulette Hamlin stated in a letter to senior program participants. “For this reason, we are forced to close our senior sites until a budget agreement is reached.”

The Waterloo senior center has been serving the community since 1976, when it started at St. Paul United Church of Christ. The current site, located at 207 West Fourth Street, averages about 45 meals per day (30 home deliveries, 15 dine-ins). In addition to cooking its own meals, the Waterloo site also cooks the daily lunches for the Columbia and Red Bud senior centers — about 180 meals per day total.

Elizalde said there are six part-time staff members plus a back-up delivery driver in Waterloo and four on staff in Columbia who will be laid off as part of the site closures. Elizalde has worked at the Waterloo senior center since 2002.

In addition to the meals, Elizalde said these local centers serve as a place of fellowship for senior citizens.

“They are sitting and playing games with people their own age, sharing stories,” she said. “They are kind of their own community.”

Lena Woodcock, a 101-year-old Waterloo resident, still visits the Waterloo center frequently to play cards and enjoy social time with friends.

“Lena said she’s not sure what she is going to do now that we’re closing,” Elizalde said.

Seniors also learn about Medicare enrollment programs and receive information on elder care and assisted living options as well as low-income opportunities through the centers.

“All of that comes out of here. This affects a lot of people,” Elizalde said.

For now, the Western Egyptian food pantry portion of the Waterloo senior site will remain in operation on Mondays and Wednesdays. The thrift store, located in the basement of the Waterloo senior center, will close.

“Unlike the state, we can’t write checks for money we just do not have,” Elizalde said.

Western Egyptian officials urge the community to voice their opinions on the senior center closings by contacting their local legislators: State Rep. Jerry Costello II (D-Smithton) at 618-282-7284 or State Sen. Dave Luechtefeld (R-Okawville) at 618-243-9014.

Costello offered the following comments on the matter Thursday:

“The funds to keep these senior centers open and meals for seniors available are mainly federal funds that the state is responsible for distributing. With the budget process currently stalled, the federal funds that would provide meals, cooling centers and other services for the elderly are sitting in the state accounts, unable to be disbursed. That is unacceptable, and why I support budget plans that would have keep these vital services funded for our senior citizens.

“Funding for seniors and other vulnerable populations should not suffer as a part of this process. I am committed to working toward getting federal funds distributed as soon as possible so that seniors and the services they rely on cannot be used a bargaining chip in a political game. This is an issue that should rise above partisan beliefs and I urge my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to work with me to free these federal funds from the budget impasse to keep senior centers open and meals delivered to homebound seniors in need.”

On Friday, the House of Neighborly Service — a new organization of church and community leaders aiming to provide assistance to those in need — met at Waterloo City Hall to help find a temporary solution to feed local elderly citizens affected by the Western Egyptian senior center closing.

Real Life United Methodist Church, located at 400 Park Street in Waterloo, will be opening its doors daily from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. starting Monday until further notice for the elderly to congregate and eat. There will be a free meal of some sort provided, but the menu is yet to be determined.

As for home-deliveries, Western Egyptian has already supplied these seniors with frozen meals that should cover them for the next week. The House of Neighborly Service is working to come up with a solution for local home-delivered meals in Waterloo going forward. Anyone wishing to assist in this endeavor may call the Help Line at 939-8680.

The House of Neighborly Service is stepping up to help insure seniors also have meals in Columbia. Volunteers will be needed on a daily basis to pick up and bring meals to the Columbia site. Those interested in helping can contact Paul Ellis at Columbia City Hall (281-7144) for referral. The Columbia Senior Center at City Hall will be open for meal service from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. this week, staffed by volunteers.

Donations for senior center meals and delivered meals can be made to House of Neighborly Service, P.O. Box 367, Waterloo, IL, 62298. The House of Neighborly Services just received initial 501c3 approval from the IRS.

In Red Bud, the VFW is trying to help local seniors. The Red Bud VFW has been contacting local organizations and businesses to try and raise both funds and support for seniors until the budget crisis is resolved. Anyone wishing to help in this effort may send donations to the Red Bud VFW at P.O. Box 123, Red Bud, IL 62278.

Garden Place, which operates senior living communities in Columbia, Waterloo and Red Bud, announced it is offering its facilities to all seniors who were dependent on the services Western Egyptian provided.

“For all seniors who were using Western Egyptian senior centers as a cooling center, for social time or for their meals, they are welcome to use our Garden Place locations until the state can work out their budget issues,” Garden Place issued in a press release.

Guests are welcome anytime between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m., Monday through Friday. Lunch is served between noon and 1 p.m. Seniors interested in eating lunch at Garden Place are asked to call at least 24 hours in advance so plans can be made accordingly.

The numbers for the local Garden Place locations are 281-4200 in Columbia, 939-4900 in Waterloo and 282-7775 in Red Bud.

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Corey Saathoff

Corey is the editor of the Republic-Times. He has worked at the newspaper since 2004, and currently resides in Columbia. He is also the principal singer-songwriter and plays guitar in St. Louis area country-rock band The Trophy Mules.
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