YMCA will step in to keep popular senior lunch program going strong

Serena Bettencourt, left, comes to the senior lunch at the

Like many seniors in Gilroy, Nina York has been frequenting the Senior Center at 7371 Hanna St. on daily basis for decades. York, who has a caregiver transport her to the center from her home, comes to visit with friends and enjoy their company.

“I come to visit with people and to have my lunch,” said York, sitting in her wheelchair pushed up at one of the round tables. “I’m a positive person. I like everybody.

Another reason many seniors frequent the facility in between Fifth and Sixth streets is because of the Senior Nutrition Lunch Program, which is partially funded by the federal government, the county and other organizations.

“I’ve been coming here for about 12 years,” said Mel Bettencourt, who was joined by his wife, Serena, and few friends at their table. “We come for the senior lunch and to be with the people here. It’s a nice feeling being with our friends.”

But the Senior Nutrition Lunch Program is going through a transition of sorts.

Catholic Charities, which has run the service for years, will no longer be doing so. Their yearly contract ended last June, but was renewed only through the end of this year. The final lunch service was held Friday, Dec. 21. The Mount Madonna YMCA, which was the only organization to apply for the contract, takes over starting in the New Year and will hold its first lunch service on Jan. 2.

“We’ll miss the people from Catholic Charities, but we just want the Senior Center to stay open for us,” said Mel Bettencourt, who has lived in Gilroy for 80 years. “I heard a lot of nice things about the YMCA as well.”

Nutrition Site Manager Juanita Velaso with the Senior Center anticipates a smooth transition.

“For the most part, it’s going to be pretty much the same,” she said. “I was very happy for the seniors that it was the YMCA since they have a very good reputation. It was good to know it was them taking over.”

The YMCA already sent a head kitchen cook and nutrition site manager to the Gilroy facility to shadow the Catholic Charities staff to help with the transition.

“The YMCA has been expanding its services into Gilroy, and older adults are one of our top priorities,” said Susan Fent, Director of Senior Programs and Services for the Mount Madonna YMCA, which has an office in Gilroy and Morgan Hill. “Quite frankly, if we had not taken on the Gilroy Senior Lunch Nutrition Program, there probably wouldn’t be a Gilroy Senior Lunch Nutrition Program anymore.”

The only qualification for the Senior Lunch is that the recipient must be 60 years of age or older. Visitors don’t have to enlist at the Senior Center or make reservations for the lunch. It is on a first-come-first-serve basis. Everyone is welcome, regardless of ethnicity or financial status. The lunch is held daily starting at 11:30 a.m. There is a suggested $3 donation, but it is not required and is completely confidential.

“I enjoy it because I like to get out of the house. I enjoy the company and the food,” said Marie Defebaugh, who appreciates the conversations with others since her husband passed away.

The Senior Nutrition Lunch Program must abide by county guidelines and be approved by the county nutritionist. There is a six-month core menu and the cooks base their meal plans off of that.

“We must serve all of the food groups. We must provide at least one serving of vegetables – but we serve two,” said Juanita Velasco, Nutrition Site Manager at the Senior Center. “You do have to follow the guidelines and it has to be healthy.”

Each lunch service has a goal of feeding at least 75 seniors. However, on Thursday, Dec. 20, there were 100 people who came to eat. The Center uses a general menu, but does try to accommodate those with special conditions.

“A lot of them are regulars. I get to know them very well,” said Velasco. “I get to know their stories. There’s a lot of wisdom in this group.”

There are 16 round tables in the Senior Center with about seven seats at each table. Seniors do sign in when they arrive, find a seat with friends and are then served at their table by a team of 25 volunteers.

In the past, a lot of Gilroy seniors would go eat at the Senior Center in Morgan Hill and vice versa depending on the menu for that day. However with the YMCA now in charge of both meal services, the menus will be exactly the same.

“The great thing about the YMCA coming in is they already have operations out of the Morgan Hill Senior Center so the transition is going to be great,” said Recreation Supervisor Sandra Sammut. “The fact that the county is still involved as the primary agency is very comforting.”

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