SHERMAN OAKS - It’s just past 10 a.m. and the Sherman Oaks East Valley Adult Center is teeming with activity. The new facility, anchored by a sprawling auditorium that features plenty of natural light, plywood floors and a large painted piece of blueberry pie emblazoned on a leaf-colored wall, opened earlier this year.
The adult center is the newest crown jewel of Van Nuys/Sherman Oaks Park, long a destination for young t-ballers and older residents looking for a pastime. Today, however, operations at the adult center are in danger of slowing to a halt.
Unless they can raise $70,000 in contributions, leaders of the facility fear they may not be able to pay staff members who operate the center, which provides vital health check ups, a regular supply of fresh fruits and vegetables, tax preparation services and, of course, bingo three days a week.
Today, the auditorium is packed for Wednesday bingo. Some may consider the game a welcome diversion; Helene Gluck says it literally saved her life.
Blind and a breast cancer survivor, Helene celebrated her 76th birthday recently. Like many of the center’s regular guests, she relies heavily on the adult center for a number of services. The most important, she says, is her physical health. When Helene was 17, doctors diagnosed her with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic eye condition that slowly – in her case 47 years - leads to incurable blindness.
But Helene carried on, graduated from Berkeley at 20 and saw the world before marrying at 26. Years later, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Morbid and depressed, Helene found solace in food.
“I figured I was gonna die, so I might as well eat,” she said. But her weight ballooned north of 200 pounds and doctors warned that if she did not eat healthier, diabetes would consume her body – a fate her brother was not able to escape when he died at 62.
For the past five years, she’s been a regular at the center and says without the nutrition it provides and the volunteers and staff who dole out equal helpings of health and love, she does not know where she’d be.
While Helene, now diabetes free, and others derive tangible health benefits from the services the center provides, it’s the array of intangibles that keeps guests coming back.
“The currency of our enterprise is love,” said former Executive Director Sherry Revord, who helped run the center for more than three years, from its old North Hollywood campus to its current state-of-the-art location in Sherman Oaks.
For more than three decades the East Valley Multi-Purpose Senior Center was housed within the Faith Presbyterian Church as part of the Valley Interfaith Council, with which it’s still affiliated. While the aging building had its share of plumbing issues and heating problems it was the high rent that eventually led city officials to look for a new home.
Officials settled on the northwest corner of Van Nuys/Sherman Oaks Park, where an aging building stood ripe for a replacement. An $11.3 million investment of federal, state and local funds was used to build a new 16,000 square foot facility, which includes the auditorium, green spaces outside and plenty of activities. Construction started in 2009 and the center was completed and opened in 2011.
“This has been a long journey, and you can see the end of that journey is this magnificent facility," said Councilmember Paul Krekorian at the grand opening.
Though the luster of the new building remains, the center’s bare bones staff and an economic downturn that has frozen once flourishing levels of funding have made continued operations difficult.
On Feb. 9, the adult center kicked off a $70,000 fundraising drive, more than twice the amount they’ve ever asked for during semi-regular pledge drives. The money collected will be used to increase the center’s ability to continue paying for a part-time nutrition coordinator and a dining coordinator who each ensure donated food is picked up, and doled out and that each guest is cared for. It’s not unusual for Krystyna, the dining coordinator, to work full time though she’s paid for just half that.
“These are my babies,” Krystyna said. “You definitely do get caught up in the emotion.”
While Revord, Krystyna and Irma Allen, the nutrition coordinator, make certain operations run smoothly, it is the center’s dozen volunteers who fill in the gaps, doing everything from tax preparation, handling the food and operational tasks.
With diminished staff time, though, Revord was pulled in too many directions to supervise all the volunteers, forcing staff members to concentrate on providing core services.
“It’s about preserving the standard of service we have now,” Revord said.
The cut in staffing is complicating an already difficult economic period for many of the seniors. Many have lost their financial stability, along with their ability to purchase even basic necessities.
To care for the guests, Krystyna travels each morning to Von’s then Trader Joe’s to pick up donated food. Last year, the center received about $80,000 worth of food and could match or exceed that this year.
The donations have helped Helene stave off diabetes and helped guests like Grace, 81 and her husband Jack, 88, from going hungry.
The two barely subsist on a Social Security check that covers the $1,130 in monthly rent for their Sherman Oaks apartment and a few bills. It does not cover heating – which they forgo – and the high level of insurance they used to have, ditching that for a basic HMO they can now afford.
“This place has been a blessing,” Grace said. “Without this place, I don’t know what I’d do. This is our only anchor.”
That sentiment was echoed throughout the hall, including from Carl “Yogi” Cullens, a 95-year-old Valley Village resident who retired in 2002 from the tile and ceramic company he built in 1946.
“Yogi” – a nickname given to him by his four sons decades ago – is a regular at the center who comes for the bingo, but stays for the camaraderie.
“I got a lot of friends here,” he says, filling out his bingo card. “This place helps me stay active. I gotta keep going. If you stop, sit down and do nothing, you won’t live very long.”
(Editor's note: The Sherman Oaks East Valley Adult Center is looking for donations large and small. To donate or for more information, call: (818) 981-1284.)