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Longtime UWS Senior Center Fights to Stay Open Amid Budget Cuts

By Emily Frost | April 29, 2013 1:13pm | Updated on April 30, 2013 8:56am

UPPER WEST SIDE — A beloved Upper West Side senior center is in jeopardy of closing after losing its funding from the city, leaving its frustrated staffers scrambling to raise enough money to keep its doors open. 

Club 76, which has approximately 200 registered members, serves seniors ranging from Holocaust survivors to active marathon runners to poets — whose average age is 80 years old each weekday with a hot lunch and an array of programming.

"We are the only kosher lunch program for seniors between the Lower East Side and Washington Heights, and that’s critical," said Stu Lahn, 72, vice president of the club's advisory council. 

Formerly called the West Side Senior Center, Club 76, located between Columbus and Amsterdam avenues on West 76th Street, has been in business for 25 years. 

A few years ago, members decided the center needed a fresher name. Instead of "senior center," they liked the sound of heading off to "the club."

It had more panache, Lahn recalled. 

"It’s a home away from home for people," he said. 

But the city's Department for the Aging requires senior centers to have at least 75 to 100 people come for lunch each weekday to maintain funding, Lahn said. And Club 76 is usually short about 25 people, he said.

The Department for the Aging did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The Jewish Association Serving the Aging (JASA) contributes a little less than $100,000 to the program and the Department for the Aging makes up the rest, which amounts to $500,000 a year, Lahn said. 

The funding was initially cut for the 2012-2013 year, but City Councilwoman Gale Brewer was able to secure it. Now, Lahn said the whole community is wary of the looming "fiscal cliff," as he characterized the June 30 deadline when the funding will end. 

"The budget is not done," Brewer said. "I’m going to keep advocating. I was successful last year and I will try again. I’m pushing as hard as I can."

The seniors organized a letter writing campaign to city officials and have approached philanthropists and synagogues for their support.

Judy Kronengold, 73, and her husband Eddy Kronengold, 82, joined four years ago.

"For me, it was very good because once my kids were grown I really wasn’t doing much. I became active in the drama club and the creative writing and they have current events [discussions]," said Judy Kronengold.

Kronengold said her quality of life had improved since joining — she lost 35 pounds and is taking up playing violin again — and is now reaping the benefits of feeling more stimulated and connected, she said. 

"Before I ever joined I would just go to McDonalds and do crossword puzzles," she said.

"I feel I’ll lose a lot," she added of the club closing. 

Club 76 members were buoyed by the support of of the six city council hopefuls vying for Brewer's seat, including Ken Biberaj, Debra Cooper, Noah Gotbaum, Marc Landis, Helen Rosenthal, and Mel Wymore. In an April letter to the department insisting the funding be restored, they said closing the center would have a ripple effect on all New Yorkers.

"The end of Club 76 would put a far greater burden on New York City because without stimulation and someone checking on them, many of the seniors could end up in emergency rooms or nursing homes," they wrote in a joint letter.

Lahn and other leaders at the center, which has a full-time director but which had its social worker cut back from 40 hours a week to 10, are urging the city to discuss the cuts with them.

Commissioner Lilliam Barrios-Paoli said in a March 13 letter obtained by DNAinfo.com New York that the proposal for the center had been "reviewed and scored by an independent panel of reviewers."

Club members, however, say the department has not shared the notes and comments of the independent panel.

Lahn, meanwhile, said staffers were not ready to give up. 

"We are not totally discouraged because we have a lot of people fighting for us," Lahn said.