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The West Ouachita Senior Center has remained mostly empty for months during the COVID-19 pandemic, though the city has kept the center’s staff employed full-time to provide services like advocacy and more.

After social distancing restrictions were imposed in early 2020, the Senior Center shut down its facility to the public. Senior citizens could no longer visit the center to play cards and dominoes, paint on canvas together, eat together or dance together or enjoy entertainment programs together.

Seventy one-year-old Jennifer Bendily, of West Monroe, said she attended exercise classes regularly at the Senior Center before the COVID-19 pandemic. Bendily explained she and her friends miss socializing with her friends at the Senior Center. 

“I know it’s been tough on them,” she said. “We miss it.” 

Bendily said the Senior Center offered exercise courses via Zoom but explained she did not participate in them because she did not want to do the exercises alone at home.

“I didn’t go to the Zoom exercises,” Bendily said. “I wanted to be around people.” 

“The office has been closed to just recreational activities, but the staff has been here, and we have provided advocacy needs and one-on-one appointments to meet any of the needs,” said Vickie Hilbun, director of community services at the Senior Center.

According to West Monroe Mayor Staci Mitchell, the city’s adjustments to the Senior Center’s budgets entailed nixing the hiring of part-time employees to work in-house events and programs.

“All of our full-time employees have been able to remain employed and care for their family,” Mitchell said. “There are some part-time people we have not been able to employ because we haven’t had the business or the need.”

“We do look forward to the day we can open the senior center back up to the public and then we will be able to get our part-time workers back,” Mitchell added.

According to Mitchell, the Senior Center had to adapt to the times because it was no longer a facility for social gatherings.

“This department has probably had the biggest adaptations to make on how they do business because it is such a social place,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell explained the Senior Center participated in food distribution projects and is providing advocacy services by helping seniors and the public with Social Security, unemployment and Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.

“It’s not that they have not been busy, it’s that they’re having to do business in a different way,” Mitchell said.

According to Hilbun, the Senior Center served some 4,500 senior citizens during 2020.

Hilbun explained the number of senior citizens served in 2020 was lower than previous years because of the decline of recreational events.

“We have been able to serve fewer people, but we have been able to provide more of the services that we have been able to provide,” Hilbun said.

The Senior Center continued its food distribution during 2020 with programs such as food for senior citizens, commodity distributions through the U.S. Department of Agriculture and daily congregate food sites, which involved distributing food via drive-thru to senior citizens.

According to Hilbun, the Senior Center distributed some 240,000 pounds of food for Food for Seniors and some 60,000 pounds of food for commodities. The Senior Center also provided 1,000 PPE kits to the public, assisted some 130 people in utility payments and provided Medicare assistance for 114 families. The Senior Center also distributed approximately 289 COVID-19 care packages.

Hilbun said the Senior Center plans to keep providing services in 2021 and hopes the distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine will lift government restrictions so the center can host recreational activities again.

“We are hoping that we will be able to continue to provide all of the services that we have in the past,” Hilbun said. “And we are looking forward to after, I’m hoping, after the summer when the vaccine is available to everyone and the restrictions have been lifted by the governor’s office that we will be able to have more recreational activities.”

“If we are able to do that, then we hope we can serve more people than ever,” Hilbun added.

Mitchell commended Hilbun and the Senior Center’s staff for the services they have provided during the pandemic.

“They’re doing a great job,” Mitchell said. “They truly love their job and they love the people they serve.”

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