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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.”

Seniors Protest Budget Cuts

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By 11:30 a.m. on a weekday morning, the Bridgehampton Senior Center is a beehive of activity. The cooks are in the kitchen preparing lunch. With the help of a few octogenarians, the entrees and sides are dished out and steaming plates of food are lined up on a pushcart. Stella Sawicki, a Bridgehampton senior, wheels the cart through a swinging door into the cafeteria as over a dozen retirees wait for their mid-day meal. Madelaine Doran, the 82-year-old president of the center, stands at the front of the room with a microphone, leading the group in the national anthem while others work on Thanksgiving decorations at a nearby table.

Above: A senior helps serve lunch at the Bridgehampton Senior Center.

For many seniors in Sag Harbor and the surrounding community, the Bridgehampton center is an important part of their day. Southampton Town provides the lunch served at the center and maintains the building. The town, however, is proposing to lay off two positions in the senior services department next year and wishes to increase the price of the daily meal, much to the dismay of several elderly residents.

“I heard the price of lunch is going from $2.50 to $3. If I wanted a $3 lunch I could go to McDonalds,” remarked Doran who added that several seniors rely on the food provided by the town. During a later interview, town supervisor Linda Kabot noted that the fee is simply a suggested donation and isn’t a mandatory charge. However, the town is budgeting their 2010 lunch revenues based on the assumption they will receive $3 for every meal.

Over the summer, a chef was out for three weeks on medical leave. During this time, the Bridgehampton seniors were bused to the Hampton Bays center for lunch.

Kabot stated at a previous town board meeting that because of the town wide hiring freeze, the town can no longer provide backup staff for the senior center kitchen.

“What would happen if a hospital closed because they had no back-up crew?” asked Doran.

The town is proposing to cut a community service aide and a food server position within the town wide senior program next year to help defray some of the costs of running the program. During a later interview, Kabot said with the help of human services director Bill Jones, she pinpointed these positions because they would have a lesser impact on the delivery of services.

The community service aide, noted Kabot, works more as an office assistant to director of senior services Pamela Giacoia and the food server mainly prepares and serves the meals. These duties, said Kabot, could perhaps be handled by other employees within the department. She added that these two employees were close to retirement age and will most likely agree to a retirement incentive package. The town is offering to pay $500 per year of service to these employees as a way to encourage early retirement and save positions for those at the beginning or in the middle of their careers.

“The elimination of these two positions would impact service delivery,” claimed Giacoia. But as the budget is still being vetted and tweaked by the town board, she wouldn’t go into further detail. The board must file a final budget by Friday, November 20.

By removing the community service aide position, the town will save roughly $52,000 next year. The overall expenditure of the senior citizens program was reduced by around $17,000. The elimination of the food server position could also save the town close to $42,000 in 2010. The total cost of running the Southampton Town nutrition program was reduced by close to $104,000.

Despite these cuts, many area seniors still rely heavily on the centers, not only for the meals they provide, but the companionship as well.

“The center is a very nice place to come,” says Doran. “You make friends and it helps to relieve some tension.”