Tag Archive | "AARP"

A Chapter Closed: Local AARP Marks End of Era

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It’s the early afternoon on Monday, December 7, and Frank Sinatra’s voice is being piped through the sound system at the Bridgehampton Senior Center. The crooner is wishing everyone a “Merry Christmas” in song. Wreaths and ornaments decorate the room, but the mood of those in the room is noticeably bittersweet. This is the last meeting of the Sag Harbor chapter of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), a not-for-profit organization aimed at helping improve the lives of people ages 50 and up. Around 19 members have gathered on Monday to commiserate on their years spent with the Sag Harbor AARP and to fete the holidays one last time together.

“We are dismantling for lack of attendance,” announced AARP president George Burnett, though the declaration wasn’t news to anyone in the room.

When the local organization was founded in 1965, few would have predicted that the Sag Harbor AARP would disband due to dwindling numbers. In the 1980s, the group boasted a membership roster of between 500 to 600 people, said Burnett, with a sizable African-American contingency. By the early 1990s, the local AARP had dropped to only 75 to 80 members, said Ted Stafford, a member of the board of directors. The group hosted a monthly bus ride to Atlantic City, added Stafford, and held several fundraisers. Today, 60 locals pay dues. However, fewer than 25 residents regularly attend the monthly meetings. The last fundraiser for the Sag Harbor AARP was held a few years ago and some board members have been forced to stay on the board of directors for several years because other members aren’t willing to take their place.

Yolanda Martino is the secretary of the Sag Harbor chapter and has been coming to meetings for 10 years. She sits at a round linoleum table near a Christmas tree lit with tiny lights and is sifting through the minutes from previous meetings in a manila folder. As secretary, Martino was in charge of booking guest speakers, like Dr. John Oppenheimer and members of the Southampton Town Police Department. With a dozen or so AARP members showing up for meetings, this task was becoming increasingly difficult.

“It was embarrassing when we didn’t have an audience,” remembered Martino.

“We found that we couldn’t have guests come from great distances,” noted Burnett during his speech.

The end of the Sag Harbor AARP was brought on by several different factors, reported members of the group. Al Martino, Yolanda’s husband, said in his 15 years of attending meetings he had seen people lose interest, pass away or move out of the area. His wife has a much different theory.

“A lot of seniors are working to supplement their income. They can’t come here in the middle of the day,” says Yolanda Martino, as her eyes swept across the open meeting area with sunlight pouring in through the floor to ceiling windows.

Yolanda worked at a school in the Bronx before moving to North Haven with her husband. Another, AARP member Vincent Starace bought a house in the area in 1983 and moved here permanently after retiring from the New York City Police Department. With the high cost of living on the East End, coupled with the taxes, others say it is too expensive to retire in Sag Harbor and many are shuttling off to homes in a warmer locale.

“People can’t afford to live here anymore,” pointed out Elena Loreto. “It is cheaper in Florida.” Al Martino corroborated this, saying he had seen several members move to the “Sunshine” State.

Yolanda Martino added the average age of a Sag Harbor AARP member ranged between 75 to 80-years-old, while the national AARP organization accepts the membership of citizens over 50 years of age. Retiring at this age is often out of reach for many people today, she noted.

“I retired at 58 … a lot of people can’t do that anymore,” she added.

After Burnett’s final speech, AARP members ate pasta and fried chicken at large round tables, noting the sadness they felt over the closing of the local chapter. Despite these melancholic feelings, the members still seemed to enjoy the company of their fellow AARP members. The men, dressed in pressed slacks and jackets, and the women, who donned festive holiday sweaters, served cake. While others danced around the room to Christmas jingles.

In one last order of business, the group agreed to spend their remaining money, $593.29, on gifts for the staff at the senior center and the rest will be donated to the Southampton Senior Services program. Stafford took the podium to close the last Sag Harbor AARP meeting.

“Some day maybe a new chapter will open. I make a motion to adjourn,” said Stafford. “It has been nice knowing you all.”

Veteran Planning Board Member Resigns

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“I have been around the world as a merchant marine,” said George Burnett on Tuesday afternoon. “I have been from England to Australia, from Hawaii to Brazil and without any reservation or hesitation I can say that Sag Harbor is the best place I have ever been in my life.”

It is that sentiment, and a desire to serve his community that brought Burnett to public service, whether in his career as a merchant marine, his work as a member and current president of the local chapter of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) or his position on the Sag Harbor Village Planning Board for the last 13 years.

In an interview on Tuesday, Burnett announced he had made the decision to resign from the planning board due to his declining health — a decision he stressed was made this Monday, and not two weeks ago when a publication reported his return to the board was unlikely.

“I never gave anyone the authority to use my name or to make that decision for me,” said Burnett. “It was either wishful thinking or conjecture on someone else’s part.”

And for Burnett, the decision to leave the board was not one made lightly, as he expressed feelings of both honor and gratitude at having been asked to serve on the board by former Sag Harbor Mayor Pierce Hance. Burnett described his experience on the board as a pleasure, rather than a burden.

“I thank [Hance], [planning board members] Ann Hansen and Jack Tagliasacchi and [village attorney] Anthony Tohill,” said Burnett. “They taught me a lot about the machinations of the Village of Sag Harbor, its codes and its laws. It was a real pleasure to work with them.”

Burnett said his resignation will take effect on Wednesday, October 29, the day after he serves his last planning board meeting on Tuesday.

But residents in the village shouldn’t expect to count Burnett out. He plans on continuing his work with the AARP and the American Legion in Sag Harbor.

Burnett came to Sag Harbor in 1956, after retiring to Sag Harbor from New Rochelle where he was a barber. Burnett said the retirement came because his eyesight began to wane.

He worked for 11 years with the Burns Construction Company before embarking on decades of civic work, dedicating himself to a number of community organizations.

“I couldn’t work for myself anymore,” said Burnett. “And I wanted to do something for the community.”

For 17 years, Burnett served as president of the Chatfield’s Hills property owners association, and is current president of the local AARP Chapter 408, which serves the Sag Harbor, Bridgehampton, North Haven and Noyac communities. He has served as the president of the chapter for the past 15 years. Prior to that commitment he served for 10 years as the program chair.

For the past 10 years, Burnett has also been recognized as a senior officer in the American Legion, and serves on the post’s board of directors. A saxophonist for the last 40 years, Burnett is also vice president of the Suffolk County Jazz Club.

Last year, Burnett was named Suffolk County Senior Citizen of the Year. County officials noted that during his tenure with the Chatfield’s Hills association, Burnett was partly responsible for having water lines brought into the community, as well as for road improvements in the neighborhood.

Blind for the last 25 years, throughout his public service Burnett successfully fought cancer not once, but twice, all the while continuing his advocacy efforts for seniors and veterans.

“I have never given up on anything,” he said on Tuesday.

And he hopes the village does not give up on one of his dreams for the future of Sag Harbor, despite his departure from municipal service.

“I would like to say that in 52 years here there is one thing I always hoped would become a reality in Sag Harbor,” said Burnett. “Bridgehampton has a community center, so does East Hampton and Southampton. Sag Harbor has no community center set aside for the teens, for the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, for the senior citizens. I am very sorry it did not come to be in my time working with the village. One day, I hope it does become a reality and I am here to see it.”