These Fresno seniors swim, eat and are like family for each other

The Fresno BeeJuly 11, 2014 

From left, Louise Graham, Manuel Balbez and Gladys Avakian play dominoes at the Mosqueda Community Center in Fresno on Thursday, July 10.

SARAH SHOEN — Special to The Bee

Coming in from water aerobics, Gladys Avakian and other towel-wrapped seniors find open seats at folding tables.

The tables and chairs decorating the Mosqueda Community Center gym floor create a social grid in which each person has a place. People at the surrounding tables chat with their neighbors. As the tables fill up with people returning from the pool, everyone waits excitedly for lunch to be served.

Not a single person sits alone, as extra chairs are grabbed for friends who are just drying off. Those who participated in aqua aerobics are asked how class went, and those who didn't are asked how their mornings are going so far. When the metal kitchen window opens up to reveal the day's meals, Avakian lights up, hair still slightly damp.

"The fettuccini Alfredo is the best in the world," Avakian said. "I could eat everyone's plate."

Weekday mornings from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., the gymnasium at the southeast Fresno center becomes much more than a place for recreation and a good meal. It is a place where the elderly find a new outlet to grow socially while maintaining physical and mental well-being.

"Just because we're old doesn't mean we don't need our friends," said Pam Brown, volunteer water aerobics instructor and herself a senior.

The hot meals program started in the early 1980s and has served roughly 38,000 meals, according to community recreation supervisor Levi Winebrenner.

"For a lot of these seniors it's the only nutritious and warm meal they get all day," Winebrenner said. "On any given day, we'll serve between 200 and 250 seniors a hot meal" at the program's six sites throughout the city.

Partnered with the Equal Opportunity Commission, Senior Hot Meals receives a certain number of prepared meals every day.

"All the volunteers are seniors themselves," Winebrenner said. "The people who help in the kitchen and teach exercise classes are seniors who decided to step up and offer their assistance."

The meals, however, play just a small role in why this program is special.

"Today, we had around 20 people in the pool, which is a lot," Brown said of the morning exercise. "They never want to get out."

The program offers water aerobics twice a week.

Brown sees the value in this type of program, as well as the exercise and socialization participants experience while attending.

"Not only is the exercise good for our bodies, but we need it for our mental health, too," Brown said. "It gives so many people here a social circle and a place to call home outside their house."

Louise Graham, another volunteer exercise instructor, remembers her first days at Senior Hot Meals.

"I didn't know a soul," Graham said. "But there were always people who would come up and talk to me, and make me feel comfortable. That's why I grew to love everyone so much."

Graham came to Senior Hot Meals after working for 30 years.

"When my husband passed, I needed to find something to do," Graham said. "I never thought I'd find something like this."

During the lunch, Brown offers her leftover salad to her neighbor, who in exchange offers back something off her plate.

"It's just one big fellowship," said Tamara Baker, another regular at Mosqueda. "We all bring something to share and we learn so much from each other."

Throughout the morning, seniors can choose to participate in the daily exercise or stay in and socialize. Frank and Selma Guerra, married 64 years, have been attending the program for 11 years.

"We come to gossip," Frank said.

Selma hits his arm and rolls her eyes.

"Our friends are a nice perk, too," Selma said.

The number of activities available has fluctuated throughout the years. Now, every day has one primary physical activity. There is a yoga class Monday, water aerobics Tuesdays and Thursdays, line dancing on Wednesdays and bingo is played on Fridays.

"I love doing the water aerobics," said Avakian.

For many of these people, leaving the community center once the program is over means returning to an empty house.

"There's nothing quite like having to eat a meal alone at home," Brown said. "I'm really grateful something like this exists. The bond we all have with each other is unlike anything else."

Senior Hot Meals is also partnered with the Fresno-Madera Agency on Aging, which helps inform coordinators what the best strategies are for these types of programs.

"It's so important to get these people up and moving out of their house," Winebrenner said. "At their age, their social circles are shrinking and it can lead them to sit at home all the time."

With the funding help of Agency on Aging and the city of Fresno, the Senior Hot Meals program is one benefitting hundreds of people daily. Manuel Balbez attended his very first day of the program this Thursday.

"He fits right in," Brown said.

"I walked in and immediately thought, 'Hey, I like this place,'" Balbez said.

Balbez is taught by the members of his table how to play dominoes, a game that Graham happily wins that day.

"Manuel, I always win this game," Graham said. "You just better get used to it."

As the program comes to an end that day, people make their way to the door. No one leaves without a resounding farewell from the group.

"Are you trying to leave without saying goodbye?" Brown said to a woman leaving the gymansium.

The tables and chairs are left empty, with just a few left over helping clean up.

"Being a part of this program is the greatest thing in the world," Brown said. "There's some really, really great people who live here."

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