By: Bill Smith, News-Press. The Friday afternoon karaoke and dance party at the Lehigh Acres Senior Citizens Center was more crowded than usual last week.
The dancers and singers were joined by others, filling the center’s function room on Plaza Drive, as they awaited a “very important meeting on the future” of the facility.
Word had spread about the depth of a financial crisis that began when its major sponsor, Lehigh Acres Medical Center, dramatically reduced its financial support. Many were aware that the money would run out Jan. 1.
Now, it doesn’t appear that will happen.
“We are not leaving this building, number one,” said Alan Neidermeier, a member of the center’s board of directors. “We are also not seeing any changes, especially major changes in our programs that we currently have.”
The Senior center will be operated by Lee County. Commissioners are expected to commit $248,000 to fund programs it its first year, and an initial $215,000 to be spent on capital projects as they can be scheduled.
Its manager, Melissa Barry, said after the announcement that the facility could not have survived beyond the end of 2018 without help. Her job responsibilities had gone from coordinating volunteers and programs, helping people stay involved and creating an atmosphere that made sure even the newest members were welcomed to fundraising to keep an important community organization alive.
“This is where they find their friendships, this is where they find the communication, their interaction. If we had lost this place it would have been devastation to a lot of people,” Barry said.
The road to saving the center started when Lehigh resident Mike Welch, a member of the Lehigh municipal district commission, called Barry and said he was bringing Lee County Commissioner Cecil Pendergrass in for a tour.
Barry saw the visit as a chance to get some county help in replacing some flooring. The tour came and she pitched Pendergrass for floors.
“Cecil came in and I was pushing for that, so I was telling him the history and all that, and because of that he was able to see what we did,” Barry said. “He says ‘really this is an awesome place, here’s my card, we’ll look at getting this as a line item on the budget.’ He was like ‘let’s do it.'”
Pendergrass said he was quickly convinced that the county needed to help.
“When I heard that there was a possibility that this center might be closing up after Jan. 1, I said that cannot happen,” Pendergrass told the crowd of some 200 seniors. “I cannot sleep at night knowing you had nowhere to go — in a community as big as Lehigh’s 150,000 residents, you can not have no place to go.”
Pendergrass promised the center would stay open, and told the approving audience that Barry would remain to manage the center, and would do it as a county employee who could devote herself to programs and people.
It took months of talks to develop the plan under which, Pendergrass explained to the members, the senior center will become part of the county Parks and Recreation Department.
“We can provide more activities and hopefully grow even larger,” he said. “Transportation — there are people we can’t get here, we need to work with our LeeTran and Passport (ride program) to get more people here so they can have access to the center.”
For the seniors who are members it was a relief; for many the activities and the socialization is important to their welfare.
“When my wife and I moved down from Iowa, I said we’re not going down there to sit and rot,” said Darrell Fratzke, a member of the center’s board. “We joined this place and my kids were wondering if they’re ever going to catch us at home.”
The transition from a private group to the county will mean some changes and a bit more formality in its governance. The 13-member board of directors will be replaced with a politically appointed five member advisory group.
Barry, a mother of six with a degree in elementary education, became director of the center after 15 years raising her children and doing volunteer work. After five years, she sounds an optimistic tone about the future.
“”I cannot explain how, just being able to meet the people here, I want this place to flourish,” she said. “Right now, the most important thing is that everyone knows that we are going to be here and we are looking to expand in any way we can.”
New programs will include more access to social services through the county, and more night programs for Lehigh seniors who have to find part-time jobs during the day to survive.
Meanwhile, the new flooring has been installed.
Barry sees a brighter future for the center with some of the changes that come from joining a more formal organization.
“The biggest problem I am going to have when the county comes in — I’m a hugger, that’s just who I am,” she said. “If I have to stop hugging to get this place saved, then that’s what I will do.”