‘Hustley, bustley and wonderful:’ The Sebastopol Area Senior Center hosts first in-person lunch

By Grace Carroll, SoCoNews, July 18, 2021

BECKSTEAD

Board president Alan Beckstead serves drinks to diners at the Sebastopol Area Senior Center, who hosted their first in-person lunch event on Friday. (Photo Grace Carroll)

On a warm and bright Friday morning, all the windows in the Sebastopol Area Senior Center’s dining room were open, and brightly colored lanterns hung from the ceiling. Patrons sat at tables of four, their conversations underscored by gentle music from the traditional Appalachian guitar player who sat in the corner. It was the center’s first in-person communal lunch since the pandemic set in 16 months ago, and west county’s senior community had been eagerly waiting to be back in the sunlight and fresh air, sharing a meal together.

Before the pandemic changed everything, daily lunch events were one of the center’s most popular offerings. They were also sorely missed during the center’s closure; Alan Beckstead, the center’s board president, said that in-person lunches overwhelmingly ranked as the first thing patrons wanted to see reinstated, according to a survey they conducted in April. Beckstead helped staff the first post-reopening lunch, wearing a bright red apron and wheeling a drinks cart up and down the room.

Previously, the center provided daily lunches in conjunction with the Council on Aging; now, they’re teaming up with local restaurants. Friday’s meal consisted of lasagna provided by Mary’s Pizza Shack.

When the center closed its doors in March of 2020, they pivoted their lunch program to a home delivery service. Beckstead said there are no plans to halt door-to-door food deliveries, as the pandemic illuminated a vulnerable subsect of west county’s senior population who couldn’t access the senior center but still needed its services.

“One of the things we learned from COVID is there are people who couldn’t get to the center, who were left isolated,” he said.

As restrictions across the county lift, the center has gradually resumed its in-person operations, with a careful eye on new variants and rising cases. Sue Paulekas, a Sebastopol resident and lunch patron, said she had already attended three in-person sessions for the newsgroup, a current-events discussion space hosted at the center.

Paulekas described the first newsgroup meeting as “a reunion.” Many of the people in attendance were long-time members who hadn’t seen each other since last spring.

“It was so happy,” she said, adding that she prepares a list of discussion subjects in case the conversation ever dwindles.

To stay active during 14 months of shutdown, Paulekas took daily walks to the dog park, which she dubbed the “Sebastopol Coliseum.” Eve, another diner who met Paulekas at the newsgroup, said she and her neighbors began gathering at a local coffee shop everyday, drinking their coffee six feet apart on the corner outside and keeping one another company.

Terry Decker, another lunch patron, spent her shelter-in-place reading, practicing Zinn meditation and teaching herself American Sign Language (ASL). She’s been working on an ASL rendition of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World,” which she plans to perform at the Burbank Heights senior housing community’s fall talent show.

Still, despite her productive time at home, Decker described the center’s closure as “a real loss.”

“I like my alone time, but I need that connection, and this center provides that,” she said. “That socializing wasn’t happening. We were really isolated.”

Danny Lerma, who offers free haircuts through the center, also recently resumed his practice and described it as “amazing” to have seniors coming in again, and experiencing physical proximity and contact with one another.

“They missed me, and I missed them,” he said. In fact, Decker said she’d taken to cutting her own hair over the course of the pandemic, and was looking forward to letting Lerma take over.

Katie Davis, the center’s executive director, described the scene on Friday as “hustley, bustley and wonderful.”

Still, rising caseloads and the fast-moving delta variant have left the center’s staff and patrons alike on edge. Decker said she had friends who didn’t want to attend the first in-person lunch, who still felt uneasy being unmasked in public spaces. The center is keeping a close eye on changing county regulations, and encouraging their patrons to act within their own safety level in the meantime, according to Davis.

Even so, there was undoubtedly a sense of pure — if cautious — joy among everyone in attendance, as the rooms that had been quiet for so long came back to life. As one of the diners walked out the front door into the sunshine, Davis waved him a warm goodbye.

“Come back next week!” she said. “It was so great to finally meet you in-person!”

This article was produced by SoCoNews. See more news at soconews.org