Welcome to The Corner Cabinet. This newly created and designed food pantry at the West Chester Area Senior Center (WCASC) is the latest way the center is helping local seniors ensure they have enough healthy food to eat. It opened in April 2022 and twice a week welcomes seniors to “shop” in person for their nutritional needs.
The center has served area seniors aged 60 to 100-plus for 47 years. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the WCASC offered language enrichment groups, computer classes, and knitting clubs among its100-plus weekly programs, in addition to providing almost 30,000 breakfasts and lunches a year to 3,400 seniors. For over 70 percent of WCASC members, the center’s meal and supplemental food programs were their primary source of nutrition. Executive Director Kathy Sullivan estimated that half or more of the seniors coming to the center’s programs are low income — nearly 40 percent reported that they are, but others might not voluntarily reveal that information.
That’s why Sullivan has made sure that addressing food insecurity is an ongoing priority — with the new Corner Cabinet this spring, and, earlier, with the continuation of the center’s food programs even when most others were abruptly canceled due to the pandemic on Friday, March 13, 2020.
The very next Monday, the center was providing food to 50 of the most vulnerable seniors. An emergency stay-in-your-car drive-through ensured seniors had enough food to get through the week. Deliveries were arranged for those without transportation.
Christopher Moore, 26, a long-time volunteer who works as a security officer at Penn Medicine’s Chester County Hospital, began to help with the drive-through food distribution. Soon, the distribution expanded with the help of area organizations, grocery stores, caterers, restaurants, faith communities, the Chester County Dept. of Aging Services, and West Chester University. Within three months the program was serving 400 seniors and, by August of 2020, 700 people a week.
“It saved a lot of us,” says Ann Richardson, 85.
Wayne Leiby, 84, who came with his wife, Sue, 83, agrees.
“They were our only source of food when we couldn’t go to the store. The volume and the quality was amazing. We received fresh fruit and veggies, eggs, milk, and donated meals.”
The available foods and household items were lined up outside the senior center. Each senior was greeted by a masked volunteer who worked with them one-on-one as they inched their car along the 30-yard-long line. The volunteer fetched the foods the senior selected, heading into the building to retrieve refrigerated items and prepared meals.
Moore, the Chester County Hospital security officer, became a volunteer at the center as a teen after his mother became the manager of the Second Reading II Book Store, which benefits the WCASC. He received and sorted books, stocked shelves, and picked up book donations from the senior center. Nine years later, Moore is still volunteering three or four days a week in the book store, but he has also volunteered for special events at the senior center over the years.
During the pandemic shutdown, having regular contact with volunteers like Moore made a difference above and beyond the food for many of the seniors who had previously been involved at WCASC’s in-person programs. “I was missing the socialization I normally had at the center,” says Mary Winters, 71. “The best part was the area people who volunteered, like the Friars’ & Abbe Societies from West Chester University. These volunteers and staff stopped and talked to people.”
The drive-through operated every week no matter what the weather. “They were just as sociable there — in the cold, the rain, the snow — as they had been in the center,” says Wayne Leiby. “It quickly became our only real contact with people,” adds Sue Leiby. “They took the time to talk with us first and didn’t rush us through. They were interested in how you are. They were over-and-above kind, always with a smile.”
The experience was equally as rewarding for Moore.
“Growing up I was a Boy Scout; I’m an Eagle Scout,” says Moore. “I like giving back to the community. A lot of people need help, the elderly especially. I love listening to their stories. Volunteering is a great way to turn the world for the better.”
When in the fall of 2021 Moore received a work email about the Penn Medicine CAREs grant, he recognized how it could help provide more food to seniors, especially the perishables that the senior center often had to buy outright to ensure a healthy balanced diet. The $500 CAREs grant he received for WCASC enabled purchase of the fixings to complement the Thanksgiving and Christmas meals provided to 700 seniors in 2021.
“We got chicken and a box that contained potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce, vegetables — everything we needed for a nice meal,” Sue Leiby recalls.
Sullivan is so grateful for the CAREs grant and for Moore, who applied for it.
“We met Chris as a very young man and have watched him grow up before our eyes. He is a talented, awesome, community-minded person who has helped in probably everything we do here. The CAREs grant, thanks to Chris’s efforts and Penn Medicine’s generosity, made a difference for so many seniors at the holidays.”
As of March 2022, the drive-through food program had provided 256,000 meals to area seniors over the two-year period. Those unable to get to the center received weekly deliveries. Twenty-five percent of the seniors receiving food had not been part of WCASC prior to the pandemic.
The last drive-through food distribution occurred on March 30, 2022, as the senior center prepared to reopen its doors and open the Corner Cabinet. Lunch at the center resumes May 16.
“We want the center to be what the seniors want it to be now,” says Sullivan. “We want it to meet their evolving interests.” Exercise classes, a favorite among the seniors, were the first to kick back into gear. Added services are dependent on recruiting the volunteers to make them happen — many volunteers are seniors themselves. The senior population (65 and older) of Chester County is expected to increase from today’s 15 percent to 21 percent by 2030; making the West Chester Area Senior Center and its educational, recreational, and nutritional programs more important than ever.
“Pre-COVID I was there four days a week,” says Ann Richardson. “It was a second home for us seniors. It’s just like family down there.”