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Senior Center to stay open due to county support

September 12, 2018
By MEGHAN McCOY ( , Lehigh Acres Citizen

Due to the support of Lee County Commissioner Cecil Pendergrass, the Lehigh Acres Senior Center will keep its doors open.

Lehigh Acres Senior Center Director Melissa Barry said the Senior Center was built in 1983 using funds from the State of Florida, as well as private donors. It was given to Lee County as a private program.

That changed a few years later when Lee County wanted to privatize the Lehigh Acres Senior Center. There was a three way contract among the Lehigh Acres Senior Center, Lee County and Lehigh Regional Medical Center.

Approximately four years ago the Lehigh Regional Medical Center approached the Senior Center and said it could no longer provide between $70,000 and $120,000 a year.

Contributions dropped from $100,000 to $12,000 to $2,400 this year.

"When that happened my role as the director changed. I had to go from just having funds to marketing and getting the Senior Center out there," Barry said. "I had to step it up. I had to figure out a way to keep this place open."

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Pendergrass changed the fate of the Lehigh Acres Senior Center about a year ago.

He said Mike Welch, with the Lehigh Acres Municipal Services Improvement District, told him about the Lehigh Acres Senior Center and the great things it did for the community.

"I went out there and saw how much energy there was in the building. They don't have a thousand different country clubs, they have this one facility," he said, adding that more than a thousand seniors use the Senior Center.

When Pendergrass visited the Senior Center, Barry shared that she wanted new flooring and was struggling financially with about 1,200 members. Pendergrass provided his business card and extended an invitation to give him a call.

When Pendergrass heard that later this year, by Jan. 1, they were going to have to close because they could not operate anymore, he took action. He said he went back to the county and brought the Senior Center before the Lee County Board of County Commissioners.

Questions stemmed around what the county could do to help the Senior Center and keep it open, so older residents had a place to go.

"I didn't want seniors to sit in front of Family Dollar and play checkers," Pendergrass said if the Senior Center closed.

A meeting was arranged and discussions began of what to do. The county wrote a proposal, which the Senior Center received about two weeks ago. Numbers and figures were discussed at length.

"Seniors here like their independence and like to know they have a say of what is going on," Barry said, adding that she took the proposal back to their board. "They listened and asked questions. It was passed by our board of directors."

With the agreement, Lee County will take over the financial aspect of the Senior Center. In addition, Barry will become a Lee county employee as of Oct. 1.

Pendergrass said the Lehigh Acres Senior Center will now work under county policy under Parks & Recreation. He said the only physical difference with the county taking over is the Senior Center does not have to worry about how they are going to pay the light bill anymore.

The Senior Center has a budget of about $250,000 now under Lee County Parks & Recreation, which includes the salary of Barry and a maintenance employee. Pendergrass said maintenance will be on the grounds at all times.

Pendergrass said they have plans of updating the building. For instance, they are looking to expand the parking on the backside of the Senior Center. The project would have been costly for the Senior Center, but now it can be done through the county.

When something broke at the center, they may not have had the means to fix it. Now, the county will provide the financial means.

"We are here for good," Barry said. "This isn't a one-, two-year thing. Twenty to 30 years down the road, it is still going to be here."

Pendergrass said volunteers, as of Oct. 1, will receive volunteer hour credits for the work they put in at the Lehigh Acres Senior Center.

"We save millions of dollars a year in manpower because of volunteers every year," he said of efforts throughout the county.

Although the Lehigh Acres Senior Center no longer has to worry about its funding, they will continue to hold fundraisers.

"It has been very stressful the last few years of trying to figure out how to keep this place open," Barry said. "I applied for grants. We went to businesses. There is nothing in Lehigh to be able to afford $100,000. We didn't fit in the scope we need to fit into."

Barry said they will continue to fundraise because it is something they have planned, it gives members something to do, it helps the Senior Center and it helps local businesses of Lehigh.

"What better way to be able to help support our seniors and community than to have fundraisers here?" she said. "The best way we can show we are grateful is to make sure we are using the facility, volunteering and helping the community grow," she said.

The Senior Center is now financially stable, thanks to Lee County, she said.

The beauty of the partnership, is if they decide they want to hold night classes for seniors, they can open the building and offer those.

"We can open up the building to do that here for the people in Lehigh. We open up an opportunity for no smoking and no drinking. They don't have to worry about going into Fort Myers and fighting traffic. It's a good place for people to be able to go and have fun and not drive home too far. The possibilities are there because of Cecil Pendergrass," she said.

This new arrangement will not affect any of the activities taking place at the Senior Center, or the boutique, which will remain open, Barry said.

"They want us to grow just as much as we want to grow. They might be able to get a county employee to stay at night. When I can't be here, there will be a county employee here," she said. "I want this to grow. We want it to be open to the members and open to the community. The more we do to help our community grow the better off we are going to be."

The Senior Center remaining open would not have happened if Pendergrass did not take the initiative, Barry said.

"He was very humble about it. I am here to tell you that guy was amazing with what he did. He stepped it up and did exactly what a county commissioner should be doing. He took an initiative to help people," Barry said.



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