Budget cuts ax program linking seniors and students

THE COURIER/Photo by Melissa Chan

The bond between a group of local seniors and children has been broken after an intergenerational arts program that united the two received the ax this year.

The Selfhelp Benjamin Rosenthal Senior Center in Flushing has been a 20-year participant in a free program under Elders Share the Arts (ESTA), a nonprofit that helps bridge generations by linking nearby elementary school students with local senior centers, according to the center’s director, Jane Qiu.

Under the program, once a week from September to May, about 30 fifth graders from neighboring elementary school P.S. 24 visit the 45-25 Kissena Boulevard center to sing, dance and keep the seniors company. The young and old then host a show and perform together on stage at the program’s end.

“It’s very valuable. It gives them memories about when they were young,” Qiu said. “For me, I think about how our seniors feel. They feel hurt, and so do I.”

The ESTA program was kept alive for the last two fiscal years thanks to $8,000 in annual discretionary funds allocated by Councilmember Peter Koo, according to James McClelland, Koo’s chief of staff.

But a growing senior population and three extra centers added to the district this year, McClelland said, caused the councilmember to pull the plug on the program.

“A lot of tough decisions had to be made this year,” McClelland said. “It’s very difficult in this economic climate to guarantee discretionary funding. We tried to be fair and equitable to the other groups. There’s a lot less money to go around.”

The program cannot be restored this year since the budget process is over, McClelland said, but it could resurface next year if the budget allows.

McClelland noted that while ESTA may not be saved this year, Koo did previously donate $1,200 of his own money to save the Benjamin Rosenthal’s dancing program called “Dancing in the Light,” which was in danger of shutting down due to financial woes.

“Getting together with these young children is so uplifting for the seniors,” said program participant Carmela Iovino, 77. “It really hurt us [that] they cut it.”

Albert Lippel, 75, said ESTA is “one of the best things that came along.”

“We sit and talk with the children. They respect us as seniors and we grow fond of each other. It’s a great feeling,” he said. “I think the program should continue. I’d feel lousy and really bad if it didn’t.”

The seniors said they have already sent 200 signed petitions to Koo in hopes that he’d undo the cuts.

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