Staff shortage forces Senior Center to stop hot lunches, cut back on rides

Due to funding cuts and a staffing shortage, the Senior Center has suspended its hot lunch service and limited the number of bus rides it can offer to elders. The changes will remain in effect until the center can hire two new employees — a cook and a bus driver.

“Because we are short-staffed, we have to make some changes to our schedule to keep the center going,” said Senior Center manager Solvay Gillen. Hours have been cut to Tuesday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. with shelf-stable lunches available for pickup from noon to 1 p.m.

Dine-in meals are no longer available and bus rides will prioritize medical visits. “I’m only one person,” said Gillen, who is now the center’s only employee. “I can’t be in the kitchen and I can’t be in the van. It might be minimal services, but I’m still getting to you.”

The organization used to have four positions — a cook, assistant cook, driver and manager. The Southeast wing of Catholic Community Service, the organization that funds the Senior Center operation, discontinued Wrangell’s assistant cook position and cut back the hours of the remaining part-time roles. These cuts made it difficult for employees to keep the job and balance their budgets. “You can’t live off that, really,” Gillen said of the part-time jobs after the cuts.

Catholic Community Service announced that it would be downsizing in the middle of last month.

Before services were cut, the center typically provided around 40 to 45 rides per day. During pandemic lockdowns, that number could be as high as 90 or 100. Elders would get rides to lunch, to get groceries, to check their mail, to medical appointments and more.

Gillen is optimistic the organization will be back to its regular operations soon. She is currently interviewing candidates for the cook position and the driver position is open. “Hopefully, it won’t last for that long,” she said. “Everybody’s been pretty understanding.”

Marleen Carroll takes advantage of the Senior Center’s bus and meal offerings when they’re available. The changes, she said, will affect her quality of life and that of others who use the services regularly.

“It’s going to make me more homebound,” she said, and will affect senior community members’ social lives. With dine-in meal service suspended and transport options limited, those social opportunities have largely disappeared for the time being. “Most of the people down there haven’t got a lot of social life other than the Senior Center,” she said. “It gets them out and about. A lot of people, when you get older, it’s easier just to stay homebound.”

But the center’s services go beyond food and transportation.

“I have observed the Senior Center calling people like Tammi Meissner (Wrangell’s community navigator with Tlingit and Haida) to talk to new people,” Carroll said, “to help them get the resources available to them. I’ve seen the girls down there find people to clean their homes. They’re always going out of their way.”

The organization seeks to connect seniors with community resources, Gillen explained. “There’s a lot of people who don’t have family to come and check on them and they do live alone. Our community is built on strong workers. We’re just cut from that cloth, and it is very challenging sometimes to convince our elders, ‘hey, let us bring you a meal at lunchtime.’” Beyond its typical scope of work, the center is on the lookout for seniors who may have taken falls at home, could benefit from medical services or might need a wheelchair or other assistive device.

The organization’s services and transportation offerings are part of the reason Carroll moved back to Wrangell from the Lower 48. She likes to stroll around downtown because the streets are safe. “I can’t do that down south,” she added.

 

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