Elizabeth Zeller, executive director of the Mountlake Terrace Senior Community Center, spent the most of the last year embracing a new role amid unprecedented challenges and financial shortfalls due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
She first started working at the senior center last summer and the board of directors formally selected her for the position in September 2020. Before coming to the senior center, Zeller had more than 20 years of experience working for nonprofit organizations, including most recently teaching art lessons at Mountlake Terrace Elementary through a grant with the Edmonds Arts Festival Foundation.
“I just always really loved nonprofit work, especially during times like this,” Zeller said. “It’s more you can do to take care of everyone else (that) I think makes the world better for all of us.”
“I have a lot of nonprofit experience, but I hadn’t expressly worked with seniors,” she added. Her mother ran a senior center for 35 years in Cleveland, however, and some of their past conversations have helped to provide Zeller with lessons and familiar subjects that she has occasionally been able to draw upon in her new role.
She said her transition to running the senior center during a pandemic was “kind of crazy,” adding that she has been able to get a better handle on the job while normal indoor operations have been suspended.
The center had to halt all programs in March 2020, which significantly reduced its ability to offer activities and also to derive income from renting out the facilities.
She said her focus has been on how to support the community through the pandemic and “what services can we keep offering to keep connected to people.” Among those services are wellness checks to ensure that seniors are safe, connecting those in need with available resources, and feeding people.
Zeller said she has particularly appreciated the help provided by Senior Center Assistant Director Gloria Mairs along with various staff and board members while her time has been spent learning the position’s requirements. “It’s kind of been scrounging to find out really quickly on the job how to keep this place funded enough to maintain even the little level of service we’re offering right now and luckily I know how to write grants,” Zeller said. “I tell people, ‘We keep slapping Band-Aids on things,’ every month I think we’re going to be closing but we somehow find something to keep us open.”
Besides grants, the center has also received donations from members and others in the community to help fund its food programs and to keep the lights on. The senior center, which rents the City of Mountlake Terrace-owned Mickey Corso Community Clubhouse at Ballinger Park, also received a rent reduction from the city last year. Zeller noted the organization recently received two sizable donations from local businesses: Cedar Plaza Ace Hardware donated $2,200 and HomeStreet Bank gifted the center with two newer used laptops and $500.
The center has been offering grab-and-go lunches weekly in its parking lot on Tuesday and Friday afternoons from noon-1 p.m., sending home over 400 meals weekly. Food for the lunches is donated from area grocery stores, food banks and other nonprofit organizations. Volunteers in a small assembly line then prepare and package it beforehand. Offerings sent home typically include sandwiches, deli salads, chips or crackers, fruit, a dessert item and milk.
The senior center recently started making boxes of food staples and local produce available to take home on both days of lunch service, similar to a “free farmers market.” People are able to choose which items they want bagged up by volunteers, and the selection of produce donated varies. Additionally, in coordination with Concern for Neighbors Food Bank, on Fridays participants can preselect from a checklist of pantry staples and canned items, which will be included in their personalized take-home order a week later. Zeller said it’s less wasteful to have the preselection process and that way people can get what they will actually use.
The staff and volunteers don’t ask people to provide their age as a requirement to receive food. Zeller said most people who show up for the lunches are seniors, but she has also noticed “kind of a widening (of) demographics this past year.” Recently a young family arrived asking for some apples but were instead sent home with a box full of items. “It doesn’t help us (to say), ‘Oh sorry you’re not old enough to go hungry’ so we feed everybody,” she said.
A significant challenge during the pandemic has been figuring out how to adjust services and programs while accounting for social distancing measures. Staff and volunteers have tried to maintain regular phone contact through wellness calls with the more than 300 people who have previously used the facilities. Seniors frequently expressed that they missed having foot care clinics regularly onsite and those services have been made available again by holding them outdoors on the deck.
While the senior center’s indoor group yoga and enhanced fitness programs have been suspended, it has been able to provide members with resources to access other online wellness classes. Their own yoga class offerings morphed into some small group walks through Ballinger Park over the winter. Recently the center has been able to resume some limited-capacity physically distanced exercise activities outdoors on the lawn and deck overlooking Ballinger Park when the weather is nice enough.
Accommodations for other senior center activities have also been made with what’s available. Line dancing classes were able to continue, albeit in smaller groups, after moving to an instructor’s garage, which can hold eight people at a time with distancing measures taken. The book club has a handful of members who still meet once a month on the deck outside of the senior center. And substance abuse group meetings have continued on lawn chairs in the parking lot, with some people also able to participate by Zoom.
The limited programs and activities have mostly not required the use of online tools and resources. “We haven’t had the technology and/or budget to kind of live-stream our own stuff,” Zeller said. Staff continues to explore various options and a component of reopening might be “trying to have more of a hybrid presence,” she noted, with both in-person and online activities available.
Zeller, who replaced former director Lisa Norton after she moved out of the area, said many aren’t even aware she is the new director unless they have been coming to pick up lunches. When health restrictions on gatherings are removed, she said she is “really excited to actually meet more of our members,” and other people that regularly use the facilities, outside of brief email or phone interactions. Some of the various clubs and community organizations who rent space at the senior center have been generous enough to keep contributing those fees even while its remained closed to indoor events.
“I can’t wait to meet these people,” she noted. “It used to be a buzzing hub of activity around here I hear.” Now, with just the two staff members on site due to COVID restrictions, “we jump if somebody knocks on the door because it’s so unexpected.”
Normally the center also rents out rooms for functions and special events, but it hasn’t been able to while indoor group gatherings are suspended. “I think that breathes a lot of life and it definitely breathes a lot more income into the facility,” Zeller said.
The seniors she’s been in contact with mostly tell her they are looking forward to the social outlet provided by the center and being able to see friends there again regularly. Finding a safe way to connect people while hosting activities again is a shared goal.
“We’ve been taking care of like basic needs making sure people get directed if they need rent assistance and making sure people get food or if they need meals on wheels delivered and things like that but…the social costs of this past year have been devastating,” Zeller said. “A lot of seniors are empty-nesters and by themselves, they don’t maybe have their whole family around them, and I can tell the loneliness is creeping in.”
She emphasized that until regular indoor activities can resume, the senior center still has an important role to play. “We’re here to feed people,” she said, “we’re here to listen if they just need to talk, we’re here!”
Despite the challenges of learning a new position and adapting how a community center functions while it can’t hold group gatherings indoors, Zeller said she’s found a dream job. “What I’m doing just feels so fulfilling during the pandemic” she added. “I really love what I’m doing, I’m in a place where I love doing it.”
The Mountlake Terrace Senior Community Center is located at 23000 Lakeview Dr. and can be contacted by calling 425-672-2407 or by emailing MLTcscdirector@gmail.com. It will remain closed for indoor senior programming until Snohomish County enters Phase 4 under Gov. Inslee’s COVID-19 reopening guidelines.
— By Nathan Blackwell