The center closed last September, but the former members have not remained idle. Every Friday since the city shuttered the center that provided meals and company to the city’s seniors, a small, dedicated group of people meet in the parlor of Plymouth Church.
According to Denise Nepveux, a post-doctoral research fellow at Syracuse University’s Center for Human Policy, Law and Disability Studies, the group has two main goals: to re-establish the Ida Benderson Center downtown and to keep the group together. “We’re not going to give up,” said Mary Lawler, a former attendee of the center.
Nepveux, who facilitates the meetings at Plymouth Church, was looking for a volunteer opportunity in September and saw that the seniors were actively protesting the closing of the center. “I think we accomplished a lot; we were out front in the media,” she said. “I don’t think you could talk to anyone in Syracuse who didn’t know what the Ida Benderson Center was.”
Meetings focus on how the group can accomplish its goals. Nepveux said they spend a lot of time discussing visits to other community centers that offer programs for seniors, such as the Westcott Community Center, 826 Euclid Ave., and the Northeast Community Center, 716 Hawley Ave.
“Before we try to build a new home for the center, we thought, ‘Well, let’s visit some existing places,’” she noted. The community centers would serve as a temporary home where the group could gather while they decide how to best achieve their goal of a new Benderson Center. Also, the group has been trying to collect contact information about the other seniors who used to attend the center, as well as historical data about the place.
“It’s not easy,” Nepveux admitted. “People are dispersed with where they live, and many can’t afford to have a phone. Or if they do have a phone, a lot of the times they cannot afford to pay their bills, so you can’t reach them.”
The Benderson community also wants to reach out to SU students, and will be holding an informational meeting at the MoreHouse Coffee Bar & Lounge, 110 Walnut Place, on Tuesday, March 20, 2 p.m. The event, called “Coffee and Conversations,” will feature the members of the Benderson community speaking about the importance of the center in the past, the closing of the center and the movement to resist its closure, and the current efforts and goals of the Ida Benderson Action Group. The group will also discuss how students can become involved.
“People are still reeling from the loss of the center,” said Nader Maroun, 5th District common councilor, who attends the Plymouth church meetings. “The center provided a place you could come from anywhere, figuratively or literally, and have somewhere to go.”
The Benderson Center, which provided seniors with meals and a place to gather for 36 years, closed its doors on Sept. 30 after Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner announced in August that the city could no longer afford the $120,000 annual rent. Despite avid protests from the seniors and several last-minute donations, totaling $20,000, the center closed. Miner suggested the seniors use a similar program at the Salvation Army, just four blocks south of the center at 677 S. Salina St.
Maroun was not in favor of the decision to close the center or how the closing was handled. He began to attend meetings to show his support. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to hear from people from our community, as far as I’m concerned,” he said.
Nepveux said the Ida Benderson Center had an enrollment of about 100 members, and on a typical day, 60 people ate lunch. Some have gone on to other centers, including the Salvation Army, but most are not going anywhere.
“Inside my heart, I was angry because it was closed,” said Lawler, who had been attending the center for more than two years. She said she misses the staff the most. They were genuine and caring, she said, and would always welcome her to the center and ask about her health. They would be concerned if she did not come for a while. Even now, she keeps in touch with them. When she happens to bump into them downtown, they would always stop to greet her. “They didn’t pass by me like I was a ship in the dark,” she said.
Other former Benderson Center attendees also felt the sting of the center’s closing. “I felt like my world was coming to an end” when it closed, noted Sue Hollister, who had visited the center for a year after her husband died. Although she has only been attending it for a short time, she says she was there “long enough to get acquainted with people, and feel like I was in a family.”
In the absence of the center, Hollister said the meetings at Plymouth give the group a chance to talk about different things, and “to make us feel like we’re not alone.”
When people lost Ida Benderson, they lost a sense of community, said Maroun. “People at Ida Benderson may not know your last name, but they knew who you were, they knew a little about you. It felt as if they were a family. Sure, you can ship them away to someplace else, as was done, but it’s not the same. It’s been that way for 40 years.”
Added Nepveux, “There is a way in which the Ida Benderson Center continues, just without the physical structure we need to support us. In the meantime, we can support one another to remain a community.” For more information, email email@example.com.