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'Home Away From Home' at Risk

A South L.A. senior center could lose funds. Patrons say they'll fight to keep it open.

March 08, 2003|Li Fellers | Times Staff Writer

For many elderly residents in a slice of South Los Angeles, the Estelle Van Meter Multipurpose Center is the heart of their social lives -- where they can laugh and talk with friends, share meals and even learn how to square dance.

"It's a home away from home," said Yvonne Ali, 73, who started coming to the center after open heart surgery three years ago left her depressed.

But now this beloved center for senior citizens is in trouble. Its primary source of funding -- about $100,000 -- was cut a year ago by the Los Angeles Department of Aging because, department officials said, the center duplicated services provided by another center in South Los Angeles. The department also wanted to devote more funds to adult day-care.

The three remaining staff members have managed to keep the center open, even forgoing their paychecks since December.

"We're the last ones to get paid because we want to keep the doors open," said Ethel Gorrell, executive director.

If the center doesn't find more funding, it could be closed within six months, said Dolores Vernon, program coordinator.

That would be devastating, said the volunteers, staff and senior citizens who use the center.

"Personally, I don't know what I'd do with my life. I look forward every day to getting up and coming here," said Troy Lewis, 70, who has worked at the center for 17 years.

As part of his duties, Lewis supervised a food give-away Friday that attracted 73 people. Before the day would be over, a free hot lunch for seniors would be served and square dancers from across the city would be kicking up their heels, hosted by the center's own group, the Van Meter Lords and Ladies. The twice-weekly Spanish class was also held. Outside, the "boutique" was selling used clothes.

Last year, center staff estimate, they served more than 12,000 people, many senior citizens, with services ranging from elder abuse prevention to sewing classes.

Estelle Van Meter started the center in 1983 at the age of 75. Before her death several years ago, she was a community activist known for loudly voicing her concerns about crime and violence in South Los Angeles. Van Meter also had a way of getting prominent individuals to listen.

"Mrs. Van Meter was a person who, when she spoke, even the chief of police would run around doing what she wanted to do," Gorrell said.

Her hope was to provide a safe place for seniors and a place where neighbors could gather. "This lady gave her life for the center," Gorrell said.

Many at the center vowed to do the same. "She made me promise to make sure this center stayed open regardless of the circumstances and to do whatever it takes," Lewis said.

And they are.

When the center held a "self-help drive" last July, 70 seniors donated what they could -- in amounts ranging from $5 to $100. They raised $3,000.

Last year, Hawthorne Savings donated $33,000 and helped raise an additional $5,000 at a walk-a-thon.

The bank has pledged $40,000 for the coming year and will help with future fund-raising, said Latrice Wilkinson, who does community outreach for the bank.

A breakfast fund-raiser co-hosted by the bank last week generated promises from seven organizations for financial assistance.

Until funds are in hand, the people at the center say they're determined to keep it open.

"I made her [Estelle Van Meter] a promise and that's what keeps me here," Lewis said. "We're hanging in there."

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