With Enrichment Center cuts, seniors lose more than a meal

Apr. 17, 2013 @ 08:17 PM

Dozens of senior citizens gather every weekday from about 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. for a free lunch at the Lee County Enrichment Center. To some, the time is about more than just food — also serving as a social gathering for the elderly folks who show up. For others, it is just about the meal, but for good reason — it’s the only meal they’ll eat all day.

No matter what the attendees get out of the lunch program, they’ll soon have fewer chances to enjoy it. Due to budget cuts related to the federal sequestration, the Enrichment Center won’t be serving Meals on Wheels or on-site lunch on Wednesdays starting May 15 and lasting through at least September 30, if not longer.

“I live alone, and one meal a day is all I get,” Elizabeth Wilson said Wednesday at the Enrichment Center, waiting for that one meal to be served. “I also feel bad for those who get Meals on Wheels, since those [delivery] people might be the only people they see all day.”

Added Earl Thompson, who has been regularly eating lunch there for nearly 13 years: “A lot of people might say, ‘Well, one day ain’t no big deal’, but to some people it is.”

Thompson, who will turn 80 next month and recently stepped down from leading a Bible study at the center after more than 11 years, said many people who come to this lunch wouldn’t otherwise leave their houses, or even see another person.

“It’s not only a meal they have, but look at the fellowship,” he said. “... All during the day, they’re by themselves, so just having a meal can be a big deal, or just having people say ‘hi.’ We’re like a family.”

To cope with its $12,000 federal budget cut, the Enrichment Center will end those Wednesday services, and the center’s ramp-building projects in the homes of local seniors who have trouble using the stairs will end entirely. Debbie Davidson, the center’s executive director, said she would never have cut any of those programs if it were up to her. However, the cuts were to specific budget areas, and not just general funding, so she said she had no choice.

She chose Wednesday for the lunch cuts, she said, so that those who rely on the Enrichment Center for food will only be affected in the middle of the week rather than right before or after the weekend.

“I’ve been here 27 years and have taken over $100,000 in cuts, but I never cut food before,” Davidson said Wednesday. “But they forced my hand.”

Now, in addition to planning for the cutbacks and hoping that they don’t continue beyond September, Davidson is also helping some of those affected reach out to Rep. Renee Ellmers, Sen. Kay Hagan and Sen. Richard Burr, the three people who represent Lee County in the U.S. Congress.

Davidson said that in the wake of the sequester, the state kicked in a little extra funding to help ease the pain, and private donors have also stepped up. For example, she said, the Enrichment Center’s annual Gay 90s luncheon had been canceled because of the cuts, but unnamed donors have since let her know they’re willing to sponsor it. However, no private donors have come forward offering to help continue the lunches, which she said cost about $415 a day.

Larry Alleyne, a 69-year-old who said he has been a regular since moving from New York to Sanford about four years ago, said he can deal with the loss of the food — but he’s not so sure about losing the chance to be around people.

“I miss a day here, and I get depressed,” he said. “... I came here in 2009, and my daughter introduced me to this place.SDRq

Gracie Leak, 64, said she and her husband are both on fixed incomes, and while they’re able to eat fairly regularly, it can sometimes be a stretch when medications, doctor visits and living expenses start to pile up.

“It’s a necessity for me, and I know it’s a necessity for many others, too,” she said.

Leak said she’s going to start spending her soon-to-be free Wednesdays volunteering around town. Two people who don’t have that option, though, are Blondine and Nathaniel Hawkins, who have been coming to the lunch nearly every day since 1996. Blondine is completely blind, and Nathaniel is nearly blind.

“We’ll miss coming here every day,” Blondine said. “... We’re going to be sitting at home,”

And for 99-year-old William Waddell, the loss of Wednesday lunch will mean substituting hot dogs for the Enrichment Center meal, which generally consists of meat, veggies, bread, milk and a dessert. Waddell lives with his daughter, but she works as a nurse and can’t always be there to help him cook or get around town. He has no doubt he’ll miss seeing the COLTS bus pull up on Wednesdays to take him to a healthy lunch and the company of friends.

“It’s the only place I can go,” he said.