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Life Enrichment Center in Oyster Bay thanks its volunteers

Celebration like a family reunion

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When 67-year-old Paulette Defilippe speaks, her face breaks out into a broad smile. Sitting with a group of friends at the Life Enrichment Center in Oyster Bay, she talked effusively about what a great resource the center is for people like her who live in the area. “It’s very important when you get older not to be isolated,” Defilippe said. “Here we have plenty of activities, classes, buses to take you places, a thrift shop.”

Defilippe, who lives in East Norwich, has volunteered at the center for nearly 10 years and was one of about 100 people who attended the center’s annual Volunteer Recognition Day Luncheon on April 25. The event honors people who give their time, energy and skills to improve the lives of others by volunteering.

As people greeted each other with hugs and laughter, it almost felt like a family reunion. Round tables were adorned with little grass centerpieces made by the members, and nearby a large sheet cake decorated with balloons declared, “Thank You Volunteers.” There was a real sense of familiarity and purpose, which isn’t surprising, since volunteers are a vital resource in helping the center achieve its mission of providing older adults with the resources they need to live independently in the community.

“Whenever the volunteers do something, no matter how big or small, we’re gratified to have these people,” said Mary Frignani, the center’s program director.

Frignani described the center as a boys’ and girls’ club for those 60 and older. Volunteers run activities including dance and exercise classes, day trips to the mall, a piano program, cooking demos, jewelry-making workshops and others.

Beyond club activities, members can also take advantage of vital services that are especially valuable to seniors who have a hard time getting around. They include volunteer nurses, a social worker and a team of drivers who make up the Elderly Transportation Service. ETS drivers transport members to and from medical appointments. This year’s luncheon honored their efforts in particular.

Janice Longworth, 77, is a retired nurse from Oyster Bay who has been volunteering to drive seniors to their appointments for about three years. “If they take a cab, the cab doesn’t wait,” she said. “I usually go in and stay with them and wait while they have their appointment, then drive them home.”

She’s also a sounding board for seniors who need one. “I’m a nurse by training, and I’m interested in seniors and their health,” Longworth explained. “Sometimes we talk about the things they’re going to the doctors for. As I’m aging myself, I can really identify with all the problems they have.”

“They provide a very, very valuable service,” said Jennette James, 78, a volunteer and a member of the center’s Senior Advisory Council. She said that without the volunteer drivers, many of the seniors might not be able to get to their doctors for their appointments or tests.

“Maybe it’s dialysis or something like that, and they have no way of getting there,” James said, adding that it surprised her how the ETS program has grown. “I was shocked we have nine drivers. I thought it was one or two.”

As the luncheon got under way, the center’s executive director, Judy Palumbo, made a few remarks and thanked the volunteers for their contributions. She singled out the ETS and volunteer nurses for special recognition, calling them the behind-the-scenes volunteers that no one knows about unless they use the drivers’ services.

Following Palumbo’s remarks, the volunteers were presented with certificates of citations and proclamations. Several local elected leaders, including State Sen. Jim Gaughran, Town Supervisor Joseph Saladino, State Assemblymen Charles Lavine and Michael Montesano, and County Legislator Josh Lafazan were on hand to lend their support in honoring the volunteers.

As the crowd waited for lunch to be served, the room buzzed with camaraderie and affection. Theodore Koh, 79, from Syosset, the resident volunteer photographer, described the center as his “second home.”

That sense of belonging was expressed by many in the crowd. “It’s a place for the seniors to get out instead of being stuck or left at home,” James said. “And let me tell you, you meet some wonderful people. I can’t tell you, in the past 10 years, how many people I met and became close to.”