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Seniors still upset over center's changes

Dorothy Parsons's 17 years of work at the Ashland Senior Center ended when center Director Chris Dodson was let go Aug. 28. Now the 89-year-old feels like she's lost an important part of her life.

“It’s a bit depressing,” says Parsons. “I had a regular schedule and people I saw. I’m not going down there much anymore.”

Parsons and a dozen others protested Thursday afternoon on the Ashland Plaza, saying the Senior Center at 1699 Homes Ave. is being “gutted” by the city Parks and Recreation Department in favor of a more recreational agenda and a decentralization of services.

It’s a concern that Parks and Recreation Director Michael Black strenuously counters.

“We will not be moving any of the core services we provide at the Senior Center," he said. "Seniors are comfortable with that location and that is staying. That is the home of the senior program.”

He says instead services could be expanded to reach more people.

“It’s not cutting, but expanding to make sure our most vulnerable populations are reached.”

Black says a review of services instigated two years ago showed holes in service. “It became clear there is room to improve and reach more of the constituents who need this type of service.”

Black has created an ad hoc committee, he says, to examine the concerns of the protesters and others to seek out middle ground and find programs that reach the most people.

Despite the assurances, former Senior Program Manager Sharon Laws said at the protest she’s concerned about the outreach services that the center provided. “By processing utility assistance in the Senior Center," she said, "staff would do home visits.”

Laws says she’s concerned the new vision for senior services will not include that. “It takes the holistic, integrated approach out.”

“You cut the baby in half as the solution,” says Sue Wilson. "They’ll kill the baby if they split services up." Wilson says offering the referral services currently available through the center, including utility assistance, is crucial.

Meantime, Black maintains that the intention is to leave current programs intact, add to the programs currently at the center and additionally create occasional outreach clinics and services in other buildings around town.

“As a community we’re made up of a bunch of neighborhoods," he said. "There are people who find it convenient to go to the current Senior Center. There’s got to be people who don’t find it convenient. For those people we would duplicate it in other parts of the city. I’m not saying move, but duplicate where we already have facilities for those who don’t have the mobility or ability to get there.”

Protester Susanne Severeid acknowledged the existence of the new Ad Hoc Committee to look at concerns raised, but said she wishes input from citizens, employees and others would have been heard and she didn’t feel they were before Dodson was released and changes announced. “It wasn’t broken. It didn’t need a big fix. They were not accepting input,” Severeid said.

Severeid worked part time at the center, but left when she learned Dodson was being let go. “The new people are nice," Severeid said, "but they aren’t trained.”

Dodson attended the protest, but said she could not currently discuss the situation.

Black acknowledged her work. “The manager did a good job at what she did," he said. "It will be hard to replace her in the compassion that she showed. But there are people out there that are just as caring and able to move in the direction we want to go. That’s the reason why. I don’t feel comfortable that the former management had the ability to move it in a new direction.”

The new ad hoc committee, The Ashland Senior Program Advisory Committee, will make recommendations to the Parks and Recreation Committee and is having its first meeting from 3:15 to 5:15 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 10, at The Grove, 1195 East Main St.

The committee is composed of program participants, related field experts from Ashland at Home and Rogue Valley Council of Governments. It will organize two public meetings to gather input while also meeting regularly over the next three to five months, according to Black.

— Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at julieanneakins@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.

Sharon Laws, foreground, and others protesting changes at the Ashland Senior Center hold up signs by the Plaza on Thursday. [Photo by Julie Akins]