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Sandel Center: ‘A home away from home’

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The start of a new year often means setting new goals, and for many, these goals focus on health. The winter months are a good time to look for ways to stay physically active, and for seniors in Rockville Centre, the first step to keeping a new year’s resolution might be as simple as walking into the Sandel Senior Center.

“We strive for a multi-purpose place where people make connections,” Chris O’Leary, the center’s director, said. “We offer a well-rounded program and try to make it as barrier-free as possible.”

The Sandel Senior Center is part of the Village of Rockville Centre’s senior services department, so in addition to fitness classes, lectures, holiday celebrations and other events, the center provides social work services to those who need them. Additionally, the center has four buses -- with a fifth, handicapped accessible bus coming soon -- so RVC residents can secure transportation to and from the center; rides can also be scheduled from the center for food shopping and doctor’s appointments. 

Sandel offers a variety of classes every week that range in intensity, so people of all levels are likely to find a class they can manage, whether it’s more spiritual like meditation, mentally stimulating like a brain fitness class or physically challenging like cardio dance or total body workout. All of the classes are taught by certified instructors, and five classes each week are provided by Nassau County and the Town of Hempstead, which the greater community can attend, free of charge.

Staying active is important for people of all ages, but having a place to go might be more important as people grow older. One component of health that people often overlook is maintaining social connections, which is, in a fact, a large part of the equation when considering overall health.

“We have always projected to the community the importance of staying connected,” Nancy Codispoti, deputy director of the center, said. “The lack of socialization or social connections is becoming an epidemic across the country, but having those connections provides a huge health benefit. Fitness is wonderful for cardiovascular health, but socialization has a huge impact on health.”

O’Leary said that generally, just by making the effort to get out of the house, people tend to notice their moods lift.

“And the energy increases exponentially when you’re out with people,” O’Leary said. “Getting out benefits you, health wise, from the social connection, and once you start it gets easier and you want more.”

O’Leary said some people have mentioned to her how they want to work out, but are not interested in being a part of the gym scene.

“The classes are not watered down—it’s the real deal,” said O’Leary. “I think there’s a benefit, too, to being with your peers.”

Codispoti added that people have told her they like to work out at home, with a video. “But we provide an atmosphere where you can socialize,” she said, “which is something you can’t get on the television. It’s an important part of the center and overall health.”

Aside from membership, members are encouraged to stay active by volunteering on one of the many committees.

“Everything we do involves volunteerism,” O’Leary said.

The 150 volunteers help with the various committees, which are each structured with a chair person and monthly meetings. Ranging from special events to senior concerns, the committees focus on multiple aspects to meet the members’ needs.

“It’s difficult to come into a place like this by yourself,” Carol Kramer said, “but we try to make people feel as welcome as possible.”

Kramer, the current board president, was part of a group of members who sat chatting after an exercise class on Monday morning, as they do most weekdays. Claire and John Kirkwood said they joined the center about 13 years ago specifically for the tai chi classes, but now come daily to exercise.

“I like the fact that it’s ever-evolving,” Claire said. “They are constantly coming up with new programs.”

The tai chi class is no longer offered, but for the Kirkwoods, who also volunteer as greeters at Village Hall through the center’s Village Hall Ambassadors committee, the point is to get up, get out, and get moving. And along the way, they have made valuable friendships.

“Now, our best friends are the ones we have here,” John said.

Others agreed.

“I have made very good friends since joining, which is difficult to do in your senior years,” Barbara Bohan, 82, said. “You don’t expect that to happen, but it’s been one of the most pleasant things that has happened. The friendships are wonderful.”

Bohan joined about 14 years ago and served as president as the board for one term. She said that she, too, joined for the exercise classes and gradually got to know people. Those friendships extend to outside of the center as well, and the center also serves as a hub for people to organize trips and activities that are not specifically center-sanctioned outings. 

“Most people have the wrong idea about what a senior center is,” Bohan said. “They have no idea what this place is really like, so you have to get them in the building.”

While there are opportunities for folks to sit around and play cards or board games, that’s not the focus of the center. There are plenty of opportunities to stay active and get moving – and dance. Last year, a guest speaker spoke to members about the Chinese New Year in January, and participants went out to a Chinese restaurant afterwards. Every month thereafter, a different country was highlighted. This year, the center will follow a similar model, but will focus on towns villages in Nassau County rather than countries: every month, a historian will speak at the center about a different town and participants can visit a restaurant that has some type of significance to the town. These outings keep people active and help them stay connected.

“There truly is something for everyone here,” Bohan said. “It’s a home away from home.”