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Older Workers in Demand With Service Groups

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Maria Garcia, 65, will never forget her granny, the woman who brought her up on a little ranch in Michoacan, Mexico.

“She taught me how to feed the pigs, she taught me everything. Every night she would read me a story until I fell asleep,” Garcia recalled the other day.

Her eyes filled with tears as she served turkey and mashed potatoes to a line of senior citizens at the La Colonia Senior Center.

“Granny had silver hair, and these people have silver hair, too. When I look at them I see granny’s ray shining on them.”

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Garcia is one of 64 senior citizens in Ventura County helping other senior citizens under a federal program administered by the Mexican American Opportunity Foundation, a nonprofit group based in La Colonia.

By cooking and serving meals, answering telephones and writing letters, these hard-working senior citizens have become hot items among community groups because they are a source of virtually free labor during a tough economic period.

“Everybody wants seniors,” said Javier Nunez, 65, the foundation’s director. “Look at this,” he said, holding up a pile of job requests three inches high. “I can’t take care of everybody. There’s not enough money.”

Every year, Nunez receives a $286,000 grant from the Washington-based National Council for Senior Citizens. Those funds are used to hire the seniors, who work four hours a day, five days a week at $3.40 an hour.

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Despite the meager salary, the program has had tremendous success among the county’s low-income senior citizens, many of whom have trouble finding work because of their age.

“I’ve spent four years looking for a job, but nobody would hire me,” said Raquel Rios, who now serves meals with Garcia at La Colonia Senior Center.

Rios migrated north from Jalisco, Mexico, in 1987 after divorcing her husband. The Mexican American Opportunity Foundation not only is helping her pay her rent, she said, but also gives her an opportunity to meet people.

“Working here is so beautiful,” she said in Spanish, her face lighting up with a smile. “I have many friends now.”

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Nunez said he could easily put more than 100 senior citizens to work if he had enough funding. And because the program is so popular, he has placed a two-year limit on the time each aide can work.

“I wish I could stay a lot longer,” said Nunez’s assistant, Ines Fahrendorf, 64, who is nearing the end of her term. “It’s a shame I have to leave now that I really know how the program works. But if I stayed, it would be unfair to other seniors.”

Meanwhile, the job requests keep rolling in. The latest came Tuesday from the city of Oxnard, which needs more help at La Colonia Senior Center.

In recent months, the center has lost the services of a Ventura County employee, and the hours of a city Parks and Recreation Department employee have been curtailed because of budget cutbacks, city officials said.

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As a result, the center’s recreation activities, which include exercise and needlepoint classes, have suffered, city officials said. “Now a lot of the seniors just sit around and watch TV,” said Bernard Carn, Oxnard’s housing programs manager.

The city also wants the services of one or two more senior citizens to help with clerical work at the Oxnard Housing Authority office and at the Wilson Senior Center in downtown Oxnard.

The new request poses a dilemma for Nunez, who has his hands full trying to help needy organizations from Ventura to Simi Valley--day-care providers for the poor, Boys Clubs, nutrition centers that feed the homeless--with the 64 senior citizens at his disposal.

“I’ll have to see if I can juggle some people around,” said Nunez as he leafed through a thick pile of work schedules attached to his bulletin board.

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“Too much work and not enough seniors to go around,” he added, shaking his head in disgust.


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