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TUSTIN : At Age 5, Center Faces a Challenge

Unlike its clients, the 5-year-old Tustin Area Senior Center is experiencing growing pains. While increasingly challenged to meet the diverse needs of people age 50 to 102, the center is also feeling the pinch of funding cuts.

“We really outgrew the building in three years,” Recreation Supervisor Melissa O’Neal said during a recent ballroom dance party celebrating the center’s fifth anniversary. A 12% jump in the number of participants each year has put a squeeze on facilities, she said, despite the center’s spaciousness.

“It’s real challenging in terms of trying to be all things to all people,” O’Neal said. Many of the programs are designed for seniors in their late 70s and 80s, “but we’re also looking at the younger, recently retired people.”

Among the offerings are TLC (transportation, lunch and counseling), bingo, cards, free movies and classes in Spanish, computer fundamentals, exercise, arts and crafts, dancing, music and autobiographical writing.

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The center also offers blood pressure screenings and legal assistance, along with support groups for people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes and Parkinson’s disease.

Maintaining this level of service can be difficult, however, when all levels of government are grappling with tight budgets.

“It’s a tough time with grant funding for everybody,” O’Neal said. “But I try to yell louder.”

Still, most of the news is positive at the center, which is owned and operated by the Tustin Community Services Department. Before the $2.7-million, 17,500-square-foot facility was built, the city did not have a senior center.

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Weekly meetings for seniors were held at City Hall, and there was a lunch program at a local church, “but everybody wanted to be under one roof,” O’Neal said.

A combination of state, city and private funding paid for the center, which was built next to Peppertree Park on land bought from the Tustin Unified School District. Seniors helped design the facility and chose the color scheme.

“It was not just a City Hall staff concept,” O’Neal said. “There was senior input the whole way. And that hasn’t stopped,” she said, referring to the Senior Advisory Board.

Established by the Tustin City Council, the board advises city staff and elected officials on matters of concern to local seniors. Among the board members is Margarete Thompson, a 74-year-old businesswoman who is also president of the nonprofit Tustin Area Senior Center Fund and a member of the city Parks and Recreation Commission.

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For her efforts in obtaining private donations for the center’s construction, she was named Tustin’s Woman of the Year in 1989.

When the center’s dedication ceremony was held on a sweltering July afternoon in 1989, one of the world’s most famous senior citizens, actor-comedian George Burns, was invited to attend. His written reply, which is displayed at the center, politely declined the invitation due to a scheduling conflict. Burns was already booked at an Atlantic City casino.

“And even though I have played ‘God’ in three movies,” Burns wrote, “I cannot manage to be in two places at one time.”


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