Empowerment is a shared effort at South Philadelphia Older Adult Center
South Philadelphia has a reputation for being a tight-knit, working-class community. It’s where neighbors roll up their sleeves together to get the job done. This character is always on display at South Philadelphia Older Adult Center (SPOAC) on Passyunk Avenue, a lively, busy place just a few blocks from the Italian Market.
The center’s daily operations showcase a community effort. “Everyone here chips in,” said Deborah Hoffer, director of SPOAC. The four full-time staff members rely on part-time employees, volunteers and members to help them deliver programming that inspires and empowers. “The idea that everyone helps each other is a good thing,” said Hoffer, who began working at SPOAC in 1988 as a secretary. “It allows the members to see that the staff is really willing to help.”
For Hoffer, the goal of a senior community center is clear: “I just want to get [older South Philadelphians] out of their houses and into a place where they can exercise their bodies and expand their minds.”
To that end, the center offers a wide variety of fitness classes, arts programs and leisure activities. In addition to the billiards and bingo tables that one may find at other centers, visitors to SPOAC have access to a newly renovated outdoor Bocce court that is a hit in the warmer months. “We’re a recreational, educational and social center,” Hoffer said. “We want people to be happy here.”
While in-person activities were put on hold during much of the pandemic, the center remained connected with its members from a distance. SPOAC staff made regular wellness calls to check on members and lift their spirits. Virtual programming allowed those with internet access to participate in classes over YouTube and Zoom. Through funding from PCA, the center was able to loan iPads to members without devices of their own.
During the time apart, Hoffer realized the profound impact the center has on the life of its members. “I think sometimes people take for granted that everyone has a family at home,” she said. “For a lot of our members, we’re their family. And they’re our family.”
SPOAC reopened its doors to participants in July 2021, and staff members have been taking precautions to keep older adults safe during in-person activities. Everyone must wear a mask inside the center, and the rooms have been modified to provide adequate spacing and ventilation. Staff were thrilled to welcome everyone back. In fact, SPOAC has seen its membership grow to surpass pre-pandemic levels.
Hoffer explained that she wants to empower her members whenever possible. A person’s new talents, passions and pursuits are often uncovered in the later years of life.
While attending the funeral of a center participant a few years back, Hoffer was pleasantly surprised to see artwork displayed throughout the church that the member had created at SPOAC. After the service, the individual’s son thanked Hoffer, saying, “My mother was so happy at SPOAC. She felt so good about herself.”
That spirit of lifelong learning was on display in a beginner’s sketch class at the center last year. Members demonstrated their impressive artwork, crediting the center being a place to remain active and involved, and discovering new skills. The lively group, led by instructor Don Stephens, took a break from sketching a dancer in motion to joke with one another and reflect on what the center means to them.
Shirley Leichter, 88, credited classmate and best friend Cubby D’Amato for keeping her involved at the center following the loss of her son. “This is the best center in the city,” Leichter said. “I feel younger coming here. This is like a home away from home.”
South Philadelphia Older Adult Center (SPOAC), located at 1430 E. Passyunk Ave., is funded by Philadelphia Corporation for Aging (PCA) and Philadelphia Parks & Recreation. The center is open weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. For more information, stop by the center, call 215-685-1697, or visit spoac.org.