By Marcia Z. Siegal
At Nationalities Senior Program, where some staff members speak Vietnamese and Chinese, “we host cultural celebrations throughout the year,” says Center Director Barbara Rubio. The center draws a broad range of immigrants from well beyond its Logan neighborhood, among them Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Cambodian, Indonesian, and Latvian-born seniors, she says.
“Our members take part in activities from their native countries like mahjong, Vietnamese ‘four-color’ card games and board games like Chinese chess,” Rubio says. “One of our members leads a weekly Tai Chi class.” The center also has a large number of African-American members, and celebrates Martin Luther King Day and Black History Month, “not only with activities, but with special food that members help to cook, including black-eyed peas, macaroni and cheese, and collard greens,” she says. During the Asian moon festival in the autumn, members decorate the center with Chinese lanterns; dragons and other traditional symbols festoon the center for Chinese New Year.
Nationalities Senior Program is just one of many centers where food and cultural programming and the presence of at least some bilingual staff help to bridge differences. Northeast Older Adult Center’s flag tree represents countries of origin ranging from Thailand and Iraq to Colombia and the Philippines. The center hosts frequent cultural festivals, with food, music, and educational programs, such as the Hispanic Heritage celebration director Maria Ramirez says is planned for September.
“We find that food is a really good way to get people to connect,” says Jim Crawford, director of Peter Bressi Northeast Senior Center. “We celebrate all the holidays — Christmas, Kwanzaa, St. Patrick's Day, Cinco de Mayo, and more,” he adds. More than half the members are African-American, while a total of 10% are foreign-born Asian and Latino seniors. Although the center has no bilingual staff, members who are more fluent in English help to translate for one another, Crawford says.
Such cultural festivals are also common at Southwest Senior Center, where members include immigrants from Africa, South America, the Caribbean and Italy, and where 70% of members are African-American.
The St. Charles Senior Community Center devotes one day each month to activities, like mahjong and Chinese-language movies, to welcome Chinese immigrants. For the second year, the center has a bilingual student intern from University of Pennsylvania who will help expand programming and outreach for Chinese immigrants. “The word is out about us,” says Center Counselor Christine McMenamin. “Our Asian neighbors feel at home here. We want to encourage them to come often.”
Other centers have found a niche serving one ethnic group almost exclusively. With 99% Latino membership, Norris Square Senior Citizen Center in North Central Philadelphia is among them; Spanish is spoken almost exclusively by members and staff. Through meals of familiar foods like rice and beans and plantain dishes, cooking classes, Latin dancing, an annual celebration of Three Kings Day and its own Puerto Rican Day parade, “we try to keep the culture,” says Norris Square’s Activities Coordinator Sheila Mercado.
At the Philadelphia Senior Center - Coffee Cup Satellite and Asian-Pacific Senior Resource Center in South Philadelphia, the staff speaks both Mandarin and Cantonese. “It’s easier to make seniors feel comfortable using our services,” says Center Director Phillip Lai. Bilingual staff members help immigrants navigate the health care and benefits systems. Recently, Coffee Cup established a cancer patient support group for Asian immigrants, with the assistance of the American Cancer Society. “It was not available in this region, and we saw there was a great need to help these patients and their caregivers,” Lai says.
Both here and at On Lok House in Chinatown, seniors enjoy a meal; play mahjong and other Chinese games; use Chinese-language computers; and take part in traditional folk dance, exercise, and art classes. Many members at On Lok House have become accomplished painters in the traditional Chinese style under the tutelage of one of the area’s renowned teachers of this art form.
Marina Zhitnitskaya, director of the Klein JCC & Russian Satellite Center, says “We celebrate American, Russian and Jewish holidays.” She vividly recalls Anatoly, who was more than 80 years old when he first ventured to the center. The immigrant from the former Soviet Union had rarely left his Northeast Philadelphia home before. “He said he was afraid to go out because he could not communicate except in Russian, but from the start he was comfortable with us and soon came every day. He said he ‘felt like himself here,’” Zhitnitskaya says.
He later gained enough confidence to take the English as a Second Language classes which are offered here, along with computer instruction; cultural and educational programs; a weekly Jewish Sabbath celebration; citizenship classes; and Russian-style entertainment.
Centers like this become a home away from home for the people they serve, according to Zhitnitskaya. “Whenever we are closed for a holiday, they’ll come back and tell us ‘Thank God you’re open.’ They miss being here,” she says.
Photo by Eva Iavarone: Two participants at the On Lok Center confer during a drawing class