Elodie Reed, St. Albans Messenger
FAIRFIELD — On a chilly October afternoon, the dining room in the Fairfield Community Center was bright, warm and full of people.
It also was filled with apples. Following the center’s weekly Tuesday senior lunch yesterday, volunteer and Fairfield food shelf coordinator Jane Dobrowolski had some plans: make lots and lots of apple sauce.
She had help from volunteers and half a dozen of the 25 or so seniors who had just eaten lunch there. The apples, drops from Chapin Orchards that Dobrowolski and her husband collected and donated, filled 10 five-gallon buckets placed throughout the dining room.
“Look at the size of these suckers,” she said, pulling an apple the size of a softball from the pile.
While seniors peeled, sliced and chopped apples and volunteers carried them to the kitchen, Dobrowolski stood over the stove, stewing away.
“It’s all homemade,” she said. No sugar added, either.
Sauce and some cobbler would be cooked Tuesday, and today, and Dobrowolski was to bag and preserve the delicious end product for the food shelf, which is also open on Tuesdays, from 3 to 5 p.m. She said that this was the third or fourth year this has been done.
On Tuesday, the room was filled with chatter, laughter and a strong scent of apple – everyone was quietly enjoying the afternoon. Apple-sauce making is one of a number of activities offered throughout the year for seniors at the Fairfield Community Center; others include group sing-a-longs, nutrition presentations, cardiologist talks, and local travelers who come to share their stories.
Some seniors play musical instruments, too.
The mainstay of the Fairfield Community Center for seniors, however, is the weekly Tuesday lunches from noon to 1p.m. Ongoing for more than two decades, Dobrowolski described it as “not just lunch. It[‘s] a community affair.”
The only qualifications are one must be 60 years or older. A donation is suggested, but, said Dobrowolski, “We don’t cart anybody out the door.” People come from all around: Bakersfield, Fairfax, Fairfield, Fletcher, St. Albans, and other communities.
While popular, the long-held lunch hour has an uncertain future. Dobrowolski said she and other Fairfield Community Center board members just learned that they lost funding from the Champlain Valley Agency on Aging (CVAA), the state-designated group to carry out programs in Franklin, Addison, Chittenden and Grand Isle counties under the Older Americans Act.
That funding ran out Oct. 1 due to CVAA budget cuts. At Fairfield Community Center, it helped pay for 10 hours of work from cook Jennifer Plantier, who has been shopping, creating menus, preparing food, cooking and cleaning up for the senior lunches for four years.
“She’s our faithful,” said volunteer Debbie Paradee, who is one of eight to help out with the lunches, too.
“The food really is fantastic,” said Dobrowolski. “We can’t do it without [CVAA’s] help.”
In past years, CVAA also provided a stipend for fundraising, though Dobrowolski expected that was gone, too.
While there’s some money saved up to continue the lunches for a short period of time, Dobrowolski said she and other board members are trying to find another solution to continue the long tradition. An emergency meeting among board members, volunteers and the seniors is being held Thursday night.
“I’m hoping we can get sponsors,” said Dobrowolski, adding that area businesses could help donate.
In addition to wanting to keep her job, Plantier pointed out why continuing the lunches was important. “[There’s] the nutritional aspect,” said Plantier, who buys as much local food as possible. She added, “The biggest benefit is the social aspect for the seniors.”
Dobrowolski said that for several seniors, it’s their real first cup of hot coffee all week. “Some say it’s the highlight of their week,” she added.
Joy Kane, a 77-year-old Fairfield resident, agreed. “The cook is very good and the good is very good and we like to visit with everybody,” she said as she peeled apples.
Nancy Rivera, 73, of Fairfax, added as she chopped, “We form friendships.” Rivera was just down the table from her brother, Walter Berthiaume and his wife, Diane, of Fairfax.
“It gives the seniors and everybody else a place to visit after they’ve retired,” said Diane as she, too, peeled apples.
Kane said, “It’s the social day of our week. You don’t plan appointments on Tuesday.” When asked about the future of senior lunches, Kane said she planned on attending Thursday’s meeting.
“I was hoping some of the businesses could … sponsor us,” she said.
Dobrowolski, standing in the kitchen over pots of stewing apples, said, “We want to keep this place going – we really do. The people who come are wonderful, the volunteers who help are wonderful, and the cook – it’s just a really sweet environment and we just want to see it continue.”
She added, “And you know what, I think we will. We’ll do OK – somewhere along the line, something will happen.”