Three COA board members — Barbara King in green, Lily Kuzia in back and Shirley Therrien, right — explain why they disbanded.
CLARKSBURG, Mass. — News of the looming closure of the Senior Center last week has prompted a group of community members to mount a rescue.
Nearly two dozen people attended an emergency meeting organized by Lauren and Robert Norcross at the center on Thursday night to find ways to keep the 15-year-old building open and the Council on Aging functioning.
"We're not here, again, to take over and do anything," Robert Norcross said. "We're here to try to help save the building and try and see if there's interest. ... Right now you guys cannot go on any longer, we need to get younger people involved, number one, in order to pass it on and keep going."
The Council on Aging voted at the beginning of the month to disband and gave the town 30 days notice that the building would close.
Vice Chairwoman Shirley Therrien said the board members were just tired — their numbers had dropped from 14 to five over the years as people moved, dropped off or died. Those left are getting up in years, with some in their 90s, and the majority have been involved in the COA for upwards of 20 years.
"This has all been on my shoulders," Therrien said, later adding, "nobody wants to replace us and we want out of here."
The group spent about an hour discussing possible solutions and determined that the first step would be to get a new board in place. The COA should have a minimum of seven board members, especially to provide enough volunteers to operate the building the three days it should be open to seniors.
"Honestly, the board is what runs this building," said director Leah Sherman. "They are the heart and soul of the building. They are the ones who are here the three days a week I am not here. I'm here to maintain the building, handle the unmet needs, grants and help out with anything that they need. You know, I only get paid for five hours a week."
Therrien said the biggest day is Tuesday when the COA runs bingo. That brings in extra revenue for operations and draws a crowd from outside Clarksburg. But Mondays and Thursdays can see minimal traffic and if no one shows up they leave. A regular breakfast stopped being served because not enough people were coming to eat.
Lily Kuzia, longtime former chairman of the COA, said the small volunteer group is now responsible for much of the custodial work with a cleaning service coming in once a month.
"I guess with the few people that are here tonight, one thing we have to decide, do we all think this is worth keeping open," said Norcross. "And if we do, then it's always a commitment being on boards. It takes time, monthly meetings, making decisions. Sometimes you got to be here volunteering to fix things."
One promising suggestion was turning the Senior Center into a community center the COA could operate in to attract more involvement from citizens. Norcross, 67, said he and his wife are still very active and traveling and thought others his age were busy as well.
"It says 'senior center' and I'm in denial and I keep driving," he joked, but added he always assumed some day he'd go there — maybe 10 years down the road.
Several others in the group thought adding activities like paddle ball, corn hole or cards might appeal to a younger crowd of people in their 60s. A community center would also open up the use of the building for more activities across generations while maintaining its use as the town's emergency shelter and polling station.
Lauren Norcross had made phone calls to the state and done some research on how the COA could move forward in terms of board reorganization, the annual state grant, and cooperation with a community center.
The other option is to continue with the center's closure and lease it out. Selectman Jeffrey Levanos said the town had been approached by a potential tenant.
"This tenant is going to pay us roughly $2,000 a month," he said. And while he'd rather see a community center that could be also rented for local use, Levanos said he had spoken to the school principal about using Clarksburg School for seniors to hold bingo or have breakfasts if needed.
That prompted some accusations that the town was trying to take the center away to use as a revenue generator. Levanos said the town could use money for infrastructure but that the Select Board had been approached after the word got out about the center closing. Officials hadn't solicited tenants, he said.
Sherman agreed with Levanos that the building should be kept in use if the Senior Center closed.
"You don't want the building going to waste," she said. "If no one is in the building, you know, you're going to have leaks, you're going to have things go wrong. ...
"They decided that they don't want to do this anymore. We do want the Senior Center, we want people to step up, we absolutely want to keep everything ... but it's gotta be something whether it's a community center or whether it's rented out to somebody."
Therrien said the COA board had given the 30-day notification verbally to Select Board Chairman Ronald Boucher. Since it was not in writing, perhaps the board could give an extension to allow a new Council on Aging board to be established, she said.
The group discussed the possibility of a six-month extension to work things out. The priority is getting a new board in place, Norcross said, and a meeting was set for Thursday, July 25, at 10 a.m. to vote in new board members.
Several people at the meeting signed up; anyone interested can attend the meeting next week or contact Therrien. Board members must be residents of Clarksburg and at least 60 years old.
"Everybody I talked to, I said pray for a little miracle," said Therrien. "Here it is."