CHESTER – Thanks to the budget stalemate in Springfield, federal funds for Meals on Wheels and Illinois’s other elderly-support programs are being withheld, leading some of Illinois’s senior centers to shut down – at least for now.
For three years, 93-year-old Mary Ann Jeffreys has relied on the Chester Senior Center for food, friends and fitness. In good health, she visits the facility nearly every day and enjoys a wholesome $3.75 meal. Earlier this year, as she recovered from hip surgery, she used the center’s Meals on Wheels service for her daily sustenance.
The Chester center – along with another center in Randolph County – closed its doors on Friday after news trickled down from Springfield that the state would provide 50 percent of centers’ funding in early August and cut funding altogether in September if a budget isn’t passed soon.
On Friday, when Jeffreys heard about the closure, she said she and her friends were “devastated.”
“We were all speechless for a minute, and then we started talking about, ‘What are you going to do?’ Well, I don’t know what I’m going to do,” the Chester resident said. “We just thought it was terrible. It devastated all of us. It isn’t just the meals because we have activities, we have speakers come in and inform us about the latest that’s going on. It’s just a wonderful place.”
The center’s coordinator, Donna Wolters, said employees serve 41 meals on average at the center each day. Another 30-35 meals typically are delivered to elderly residents through the Meals on Wheels program. Both services have been discontinued, along with senior transportation and assistance services.
Paulette Hamlin, executive director of the Western Egyptian Economic Opportunity Council, which oversees four senior centers, including the one in Chester, said she’s had to lay off 20 employees as a result of the funding stoppage.
“These programs are bare bones operating programs,” she said. “We don’t have any contingency funds.”
She added, “It could be dangerous for people. They’ve come to depend on our services. To get on home-delivered meals, they have to be homebound. They don’t have a lot of options of what they can do. Some of them are very frail.”
In a statement, Alissandra Calderon, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Aging, said it will fall to each area office to determine how to handle the situation.
“Without a budget from the General Assembly, the department is unable to authorize grants for state or federal funds,” the statement read. “Unlike providers for other programs in the state, our (programs) may not have reserves to pay bills while they await a state budget.”
For Hamlin, state politics shouldn’t play into disbursement of federal funds.
“It shouldn’t have to be dependent on what’s going on in the state,” she said. “We still have seniors that desperately need these meals.”
John Smith is the executive director of the Egyptian Area Agency on Aging, the regional office that doles out state and federal funds to senior centers in Illinois’s southernmost 13 counties (not including Randolph County). He said his group has the funds to continue operating – but not for long.
Smith’s agency provides services to the Williamson County Programs on Aging, in Herrin, and Senior Adult Services in Carbondale, among others.
“We can continue to operate through the end of August, but after that, we’re not sure what we’re going to do,” he said. “It’s likely that many of our senior centers are going to shut their doors until we have a new influx of funding.”