By Dan Gigliotti
02:30PM / Thursday, December 26, 2013
DALTON, Mass. — Early last week, Sarah Fontaine had an excess of 20 names on her list of seniors planning on attending the annual holiday party event hosted by the town’s Council on Aging.
Fire codes prevent the Senior Center from hosting more than 130 people at a time, according to Fontaine who works in the building as office assistant, and that’s still not enough to meet the growing demand for facility.
But, having that many residents utilize their services is a welcomed problem for Council on Aging staff, who just two years ago operated out of a small office at Community Recreation Association before building a new center.
“It was needed and it’s fantastic,” Mary Lamke said, a volunteer and vice chair of the Council on Aging Board. “It’s like the old saying, ‘if you build it, they will come,’ and here we are.”
Now located at 40 Field St., next to the former Nessacus school, the Senior Center is to elder adults as the Dalton Youth Center is to kids. It is as much a place for recreation as for guidance.
Formerly, the Council on Aging operated out of the Dalton Community Recreation Association on Main Street, in an office adjacent to the gym. It was one, large room sectioned off to create three spaces for each of the department’s employed staff members.
Patricia Perot works part-time for the Council as its SHINE director, an acronym for Serving Health and Information Needs for Everybody, to help resident seniors sort out insurance issues, ensuring they get the coverage they need. Perot, who is also a nurse and wellness councilor, has worked for the town in her current capacity for over a quarter-century, saying the Council’s former offices were not as accommodating for staff members nor as easily accessible for all seniors.
“Former facilities were extremely cramped. We had no room for counciling. We were in small cubicles. It was very difficult,” Perot said. “We really didn’t serve a whole lot of people because, really, not many people wanted to come into the [CRA].”
But that has now changed after more than a decade of the council pushing for their own building. In the early 2000s, the Council on Aging began petitioning for a building of its own. According to Director of the Council on Aging Kelly Pizzi, it took over a decade for the new Senior Center to be built due to, “fiscal restraints” and “tried-and-failed plans.”
“There was a lot of trial and error. It was worth the wait,” Pizzi said.
In 2011, the town spent approximately $300,000 to build its current facilities. The money was used for its structural components, excluding furnishing. The Lombard family in Dalton donated $25,000 to the Center, which was matched by the non-profit, fundraising arm of the council, the Friends of the Senior Center.
On the third Tuesday of each month, state Rep. Paul Mark holds office hours at the new Center, to the benefit of elders with limited mobility who have difficulty accessing Town Hall. The Historic Commission also uses the building as a regular meeting space on the first Tuesday of each month.
Twice a week, elder services of Berkshire County provides the center with a “congregate meal,” preparing food that the Council stores and serves. Each Tuesday, Pizzi cooks a soup and sandwich lunch with the use of its fully-operational kitchen.
Two community rooms are used to host workshops and classes ranging from quilting, knitting and poetry to line dancing, osteo-exercising and a Yoga-dance class.
“I wish I had half their energy now, nevermind when I’m in my eighties.” Fontaine said, in reference to the seniors who participate in regularly-scheduled Tai Chi classes.
Fontaine said attendance at weekly workshops and classes has doubled since relocating. Perot said the number of seniors she helps on a regular basis has quadrupled.
On Dec. 19., the council’s holiday party was much like one held on Valentine’s Day in 2011 as a grand opening to the new facilities. Students from St. Agnes School serenaded seniors with holiday-inspired song. Over 20 tables were lined with place-settings for the capacity crowd to enjoy a meal prepared by Elder Services’ Meals on Wheels program and paid for by Craneville Place, a skilled nursing and transitional rehabilitation center located in Dalton.
Volunteers like Lamke, retired math teacher at Nessacus Maureen Mitchell and former director of the Council on Aging Sue Jacobs washed dishes and helped out wherever they were needed. Town Manager Kenneth Walto donned a red and white Santa cap while lending his help during his off-duty.
“He came over to serve the population in a different way today,” Pizzi said about Walto, much in the same way that the Council on Aging is serving the community in its new location.
“It’s really just a great place to come and work every day. The people that utilize the center, too, are wonderful. They’re really just appreciative to have a place like this to come, so it’s nice,” Fontaine said.