In 2003, nineteen years ago, Laura Marceca walked through the doors of a newly renovated space, the venue for a senior center at 20 Washington Square North.
At that time, the site named The Center on the Square (COS) was part of the Caring Community, and had not been in operation for 2 years. (Later, in 2011, along with two other senior centers, it became part of Greenwich House.) She was about to open a senior center from scratch.
Tom Conner who had recently retired as a social worker and was president of that site’s Advisory Council greeted her at the door as she entered for the first time. Tom became one of her valued advisors.
Particularly, through the years, Tom advised Marceca to be attuned to what the membership wanted and needed and the new director took this advice to heart.
While Marceca had been the Director of Youth and Family Services for a YMCA in Queens, this new job gave her the opportunity to create a dynamic service for older adults including access to meals and programs, and most importantly, socializing.
Additionally, she wanted to create a comfortable and safe space where people “can feel themselves.” With input from the Advisory Council, she organized a brand new senior center.
The Advisory Council guided and drove her to do the most for the center. Requests were brought up at the monthly membership meetings with follow-up within the month and reporting back.
“My focus is always the community and ensuring everyone has access to all available resources,” relays Marceca of one of her guiding principles.
Monthly trips, farmers market coupons, and connecting to the Community Seder at Temple Emmanuel are just a few programs that resulted from Advisory Board requests.
As she says in the documentary film Somewhere to Be about the center, creating a welcoming atmosphere is another of her goals.
“I want the person who lives on Fifth Avenue in a penthouse to be comfortable here but I want the man who lives in the park to come in and feel comfortable and you don’t have to worry about people judging you. I think that’s one of the most important things I try to do here is to try to make everybody feel comfortable.”
Establishing a respectful environment extends to engagement with the center staff. Kitchen aide Loretta Wilson who has worked at Center On the Square for sixteen years spontaneously speaks of her boss, “Laura has a good heart. She’s a special lady who takes time with people and her staff. She’s always looking out for me and Robert (porter), who’s been here 17 years.”
In 2014, Marceca stepped in to organize the troubled Our Lady of Pompeii (OLP) Senior Center. Still director at Center on the Square, in four months she got OLP back on track to be a vibrant center, which later hosted a local precinct’s Christmas dinner and a Google-sponsored DJ-spinning senior prom with a hopping dance party and dinner.
Before the pandemic, Center on the Square utilized 50 volunteers—greeters at the front door, helpers during the lunch service, the management the theatre desk or teaching classes. Now there are about 15.
Also partnering with other organizations became a standard of the Center’s creative programming for Marceca. A list of partnered organizations includes Ballet Trocedero (contact came through the GH Music School); the Creativity Center of University Settlement, Su Casa programs; virtual programs through Live On; and collaboration with hands-on art programs with the Whitney. Come spring, the unique relationship with Washington Square Park and the Conservancy will continue with more physical activity programs in the park.
Working under the pandemic — Using Zoom
Not used to NOT going off to work, as she had for the previous 25 years, Marceca’s pandemic-time working from home had been demanding. And, a whole new set of issues needed to be addressed.
During the 15 months from home, she coordinated food deliveries to GH seniors. (And, eventually Greenwich House became an authorized enroller in the citywide delivery of food.)
She trained the Centers’ former kitchen staff to make weekly (and some daily) wellness calls, 30-40 a week, and report them through Google Docs.
Marceca created and developed a weekly mail-serve with important information to the growing 900+ GH older adult members.
She segued 30 classes to Zoom—the first, the comedy class moved to Zoom, just days after the shut down.
This class continues a year and half past its initial 13 sessions and has resulted in Peacock TV comedy special Good Timing with Jo Firestone, nominated for a 2021 Critics Choice Award in the comedy category.
“Zoom opened up our class offerings, giving us more scheduling possibilities including weekends and evening, ” Marceca boasts including 60-some attendees participating in the 10 A.M. Saturday Zoom exercise class. About 12% of the Zoom attendees are taking classes from outside of New York City.
Then, for the briefest period—five months, the lunch service, which had been curtailed, opened to grab-and-go or eat in-person, only two at a table. But with transmissibility of the latest COVID variant, lunch again is only served as grab-and-go.
Meanwhile, tai chi, jewelry, bookmaking, movement, French, yoga, art class and studio, and computer lessons are held in person while the majority of activities continue off-site.
The current weekly email now includes a list of Zoom links to classes and the monthly lunch menus.
This week’s update also reports information: Greenwich House is continuing to work with the Department for the Aging (DFTA) in the contracting process for the upcoming Older Adult Centers. Though these negotiations are still being finalized, the city seems committed to fund and adopt several of the key concepts and approaches presented in our proposal. We will note, it is not likely DFTA will fund the full expanse of our proposed supports and services, although negotiations will continue. More details to come.
Flash forward to Jan. 1, 2022
Laura Marceca has been named Associate Director of Older Adult Services, overseeing Greenwich House as they undertake a new and innovative approach to serving older adults and opening a new center within Greenwich House, at the Westbeth Artists Community.
Marceca explains that previously each center had managed independently under separate contracts and now, under an inclusive budget and network structure, contacts and resources will be collectively utilized.
In her new and expanded role, Marceca will share her talents corralling and harnessing volunteers, extending her experience and skills to all the centers. “There’s so much out there, we shouldn’t keep it at one center,“ says Marceca.
She’ll support directors in their approach to providing services as well as partnering with outside organizations and will share her networking skills in finding various grants or collaborative organizations to expand programming.
What are the biggest challenges looking forward?
While still mid-pandemic, Marceca, like many in the City providing services, yearns for a more normal time.
When will people be able to meet and greet or eat and take classes together? That is a real question Marceca will grapple with while navigating her new role.