by Amanda Ong
Lynda Greene, executive director of the SouthEast Seattle Senior Center (SESSC), has handled everything from flooded toilets to busted heating systems. She even knows how to repair the sole of a shoe with tape. Greene never meant to stay so long — she was hired as an interim executive director and soon after taken on as the permanent executive director of the center. At the time, she believed she would stay for two to three years. Now, 13 years later, she is stepping down at the end of this year.
“I’ve loved every — well, almost every day,” Greene said in an interview with the South Seattle Emerald. “There are those days that are so challenging that you wonder ‘How am I even going to be able to manage to do this?’ But we always find a way. And I am very, very fortunate that I really have the best staff in the world … they’re willing to do everything that we need to do to help the folks that we serve.”
The SESSC is located on Holly Street and Rainier Avenue, and is the most diverse senior center in Seattle, according to Greene. Its paying members and community participants are about 40 percent Black, 40 percent White, and 20 percent of Latinx and Asian communities. Their participants are also older than those of typical senior centers, with the average age being about 75.
“We are one of the friendliest senior centers in the area, because this is our home,” Greene said. “And when people come into our home, we invite them into our home, and we treat them like they’re family members, which is very, very important. You’re not a stranger when you come here. You may not know anyone, but you’re not a stranger.”
The SESSC operates entirely at a local community level and is not part of a national organization. They have a small staff of six people, all of whom work to provide a wide array of services supporting health and mental health, domestic violence support, navigating rent, food services, Alzheimer’s and dementia support, and more.
Beyond that, the SESSC hosts enrichment activities like assorted board games, conversations with peers, exercise classes three days a week, and a beach volleyball team. They also host arts and crafts and have the largest weaving lab in Seattle with between 20 to 30 looms for any member to use.
“The misconception about senior centers is that you have a lot of old people, and they’re sitting around, they’re either playing cards, or they’re knitting crochet,” Greene said. “Let me tell you that is far from what happens at this senior center. And that’s intentional, because we want our seniors to stay active, we want them to stay engaged.”
Greene says the center hosts dance classes and monthly birthday party celebrations including live music and even a dance teacher to teach new, hip dances to seniors. The seniors even regularly participate in one of their most popular fundraising events, Rainbow Bingo, which features a group of supporters and drag queens known as the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence as bingo callers. The event is mostly attended by people in their twenties or thirties, but always includes two or three tables of seniors who are members of the center.
“The first time we did it, [our seniors] were kind of upset with me, because we hadn’t invited them,” Greene said. “And my whole purpose for not inviting them was thinking, ‘This is a little bit risqué. They may not understand the [drag queens], right? … wearing eight-inch heels, a sequined dress, and their wig is extraordinary, makeup is absolutely beautiful. But [the seniors] do participate.”
Before the pandemic, they hosted Rainbow Bingo five times a year and had over 100 attendees. They sell dinner and jello shots, beer, wine, popcorn and more. It remains one of Greene’s favorite events and will be returning this spring.
Greene has called Seattle home for most of her life, since coming to the University of Washington at 18 years old from Illinois, where she was raised. Before coming to the SESSC, she worked at a nonprofit organization supporting children. Having always loved older people, the SESSC was a natural fit.
“What makes it worth it for me is seeing smiles on the faces of seniors, to receive the numerous cards of thank yous from seniors, and to have those conversations where they just come up and say, ‘You just don’t know what a difference this center has made in my life,’” Green said. “Those are the moments that carry me through to the next moment … it is the love that I feel from our seniors that comes back to me.”
Now, after delaying her leave of the position for many years, Greene is finally leaving the position at the end of this year with plans to retire. In the meantime, the search for a new Executive Director has commenced.
Greene says she has been able to make many special memories with the center’s seniors. After Greene’s mother passed away nine years ago, Greene told one of the center’s members that her mother used to always bake her a cake on her birthday, even into Greene’s fifties. Now, that member bakes Greene a cake every year on her birthday.
Most members of the senior center have adult children, but most don’t live in the area. Communication can be a real concern for them, so the center also provides technology classes to teach them to send emails and texts. During the last two years of the pandemic, there has been extra effort to create both a supportive community at the center itself and to keep seniors in contact with their family networks.
Another way the SESSC has helped seniors throughout the pandemic is expanding its community dining program. Pre-pandemic, the SESSC’s dining program prepared about 35 lunches a day for seniors to eat at the center. Since the pandemic, the program has expanded to a meal delivery service that serves 160 meals five days a week. It is just one example of the ways they have demonstrated true commitment to their seniors, even though this was not a program they had originally budgeted for or thought would continue for the long term.
“A good percentage of the seniors that we serve are low income,” Green said. “So imagine if you were 80 years old, you had a social security check, or monthly income of $624. Yet the apartment that you are living in, which is a senior apartment, is $550 a month? How are you going to pay the rest of your utilities? How are you going to buy food? …How are you going to survive? And so, one of the things that we focus on is helping those individuals finding the resources to help them.”
Greene points out that much of this plight comes from the fact that we live in a society where we don’t respect aging. “It’s disgraceful, to be honest with you,” Greene said. “We should be respecting of seniors, we should be providing more services for seniors, you shouldn’t have to worry about how you’re going to pay for yourself because of the fact that you’ve managed to live until you’re 85 years old.”
Everything the SouthEast Seattle Senior Center does is done with a small army of committed staff. Now, it is more crucial than ever for them to find people in line with their mission to provide financial support, volunteer, or even fill in Greene’s shoes, as they search for a new Executive Director.
“[Our work] is very simple,” Greene says. “Making the lives of seniors manageable, and improving the quality of their lives. That’s what the work is all about. Simple.”
Amanda Ong (she/her) is a Chinese American writer from California. She is currently a master’s candidate at the University of Washington Museology program and graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with degrees in creative writing and ethnicity and race studies.
📸 Featured Image: SouthEast Seattle Senior Center (SESSC) Executive Director Lynda Greene is moving on after 13 years at the helm of SESSC. Photo by Alex Arceo.
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