The senior center, which is located on Fourth Street in Bethlehem, offers dance and zumba classes for senior citizens to help with physical fitness.
The circle of senior citizens sat poised, some stretched some silent, anticipating the tangy Spanish beat they knew so well. The quiet room suddenly emitted a burst of new energy as every member slipped into his or her own version of the exotic dance performed by the instructor.
The seniors moved in a disorderly yet comfortable manner, linking themselves to each other in a circle. There was no embarrassment nor reservation as the room began to come alive with motion and emotion. Despite their age, the members acted as if they were young again.
The Basilio Huertas Senior Center, one of several community programs stemming from the Hispanic Center Lehigh Valley, provides a haven for many of Bethlehem’s oldest residents where they find nourishment, camaraderie and support that would otherwise remain absent from their lives.
“I call it a club, a seniors club,” said Carmen Gonzalez, a member of the center. “It is a home away from home.”
Gonzalez first visited the Hispanic center in search of some paperwork she needed to retire from her job at St. Luke’s University Hospital Network. She knew nothing of the senior center upon arriving that day, but before leaving she said she had fallen in love with the community.
After receiving the information she was seeking, one of the employees took Gonzalez on a tour of the humbly sized room packed with seniors. The retiree instantly felt connected to the chatty crew intently engaged in spirited games of bingo and dominos, the two favorite pastimes of most of the seniors.
According to its website, the mission of the organization is ultimately “to improve the quality of life of Hispanic and other families by empowering them to become more self-sufficient, while promoting an intercultural understanding in the Lehigh Valley.”
The senior center operates from 8:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. Monday through Friday and promotes the larger Hispanic center mission from several angles focused around health, wellness and family.
Damaris Torres, the program director of the senior center, said that the center is trying to tackle the health problems of seniors by bringing in guest speakers to educate patrons on topics like chronic disease, the importance of taking medications and maintaining balanced diets. The health presentations take place every Tuesday and the patrons have come to expect their lessons as a consistent part of their weekly schedule.
The center also serves balanced breakfasts and lunches to encourage good nutrition. Torres said for some, these might be their only meals of the day. Executive director Lorna Velazquez said the center has had to adjust due to the increased financial burden from buying higher quality foods, but the members and their health are always the priority.
“It is not just coming and having a meal,” Torres said. “It supports them in every single part of their lives.”
These other aspects include art classes, bi-weekly Zumba sessions and regular visits from volunteer counselors aiming to improve mental health and stability for the many people who cannot afford outside treatment.
Most of the seniors come from very modest means, usually arriving on a LANta bus that makes rounds to many of the nearby housing projects, senior communities and residence areas. Members must be at least 60 years old and live in the area, but the monthly fee is kept minimal at only $10 per person to ensure affordability.
According to the 2010 report form the United States Census Bureau, nearly a quarter of Bethlehem’s population is Hispanic or Latino. Because of this high proportion, the Hispanic Center Lehigh Valley has become a major source of support for the community. In addition to the senior center, the Hispanic center offers programs targeting all ages including a food pantry, community empowerment, social services, youth programming, women and children and English as a Second Language classes.
Despite focusing on the Hispanic population, Torres does not want ethnicity to be a limiting factor in organization membership. Staff members are all bilingual to serve the entire community she said.
“The thing I can do now is tell the people we serve everyone whether he is black, yellow, purple. I don’t care,” Torres said.
Both staff and patrons alike share the mission of inclusion. Natividad Vazquez, one of the oldest seniors at the center, is grateful to have the center because she cannot see her family very often. Despite having many children and grandchildren whom she loves very much, some as close as Allentown, she has only seen them once in the past five months. She now lives alone in a nearby housing project. However, spending her days at the senior center she can connect to a stable, caring group of people on a regular basis.
“It is like a big family here,” she said with a smile on her face.
The family feeling reaches among not only the seniors, but also the staff members. Luis Rodriquez, the custodian, said he loves the seniors and oftentimes gets to work a little bit early to take part in the early dominos games. Torres and Velazquez also share in the companionship.
“If they aren’t genuinely happy it’s just not the same,” Velazquez said. The value comes in “playing dominos together and having little arguments over who is winning. And if one is missing, the worry they feel for each other. That is just invaluable. We are a family.”