Photo: Senior center

Ed Small, at table, a member of the Claremont Senior Center, finishes his shot at the pool table while Bob Belair and Merle Boardman, watch. The three friends are considered regulars at the center, which reopened in May.

CLAREMONT — A return of socialization at the Claremont Senior Center, which reopened its doors three weeks ago, has seemed an incremental process, members say. Though any restoration of voices and laughter following 14 months of inactivity feels invigorating, they agree.

“When nobody is here, it’s like a cold abyss in this place,” said Larry Johnson, a center member and volunteer. “Having people here brings it back to life again.”

Johnson, who serves on the center’s finance committee, was among the few members who occasionally worked inside the center during its long closure.

Three weeks ago, the Senior Center reopened its doors to members under recommended health and safety guidelines by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Like many businesses and organizations, members and visitors must wear a mask unless they are fully vaccinated; they also must sign in at the front desk when entering.

“We are not being the vaccine police,” said Tom Livestone, a member and volunteer. “We depend on people to exercise integrity and honesty to follow the policy.”

The current membership is around 300, Livestone told The Eagle Times. That is still below the 400-member mark prior to the pandemic. Though new or renewed memberships continue to increase, he said.

Since reopening, the center has hosted at least 15 to 20 member visits per day.

Livestone said he expects those numbers to continue to increase as more members become comfortable again socializing in person.

“I think as people want to socialize, they are picking up membership,” Livestone said. “Some people are still apprehensive.”

Other members indicated to Livestone they will return once the center resumes its dine-in meals. Livestone anticipates the dining room will reopen in September, once there are enough volunteers again to operate the service.

The center continues to provide meals via a drive-through pickup, which began immediately after closing the center last year.

Outgoing board Chair Denise Livestone said the center began the drive-through meal service to distribute the St. Patrick’s Day meal that was canceled due to the pandemic.

“After that, we decided to do the rest of the meals that way,” Livestone said. “And it didn’t take long to get the word out.”

The turkey dinners, a special meal served on Thanksgiving, Christmas and sometimes once a month after that, has drawn between 100-150 people, with vehicles sometimes lined down Maple Avenue to get a meal, Livestone said.

These drive-through meals were a vital way to stay connected with members during the pandemic, and contributed significantly to the center’s ability to retain most of its membership to date, Livestone said, adding that reopening has kept her busy.

But seeing people again has been entirely worth it, she said.

“Some people had been alone all this time,” Livestone said. “It’s good seeing people come through the doors again and knowing they are OK.”

With the volunteer help of members Beverly Jannelle and Pauline Pelletier to run the front desk, the center has expanded its days of operation from two to four days a week.

Pelletier, who ran the desk on Monday afternoon, said she had only joined the Senior Center a year before the pandemic struck.

“The empty rooms here were not pretty,” Pelletier said of the pandemic days.

Pelletier, who lives alone, said she spent a lot of time during the pandemic watching movies.

“I can’t wait to have more people come in,” Pelletier said. “It’s been wonderful seeing people socializing and laughing and seeing the jigsaw puzzles out again.”

Pelletier said she has noticed that people who were typically more quiet before the pandemic “seem to talk more than they used to.”

The center also is booking reservations again to rent its dining room for private functions. Tom Livestone said the space has been the center’s “bread and butter” revenue source to fund operating costs.

“We’ve had a number of people asking to reserve the dining room for weddings,” Livestone said. “We have even had one conflict so far from two parties wanting to book it on the same date.”

With things opening up more as the pandemic restrictions have eased, there seems more interest to hold events for graduations, weddings, baby showers and other celebrations, Livestone noted.

The center plans to extend its days of operation to six days per week: Monday through Friday and Sunday afternoons, Livestone said.

Membership is $20 per year; anyone 50 years or older is eligible to join.

To learn more about the center, including reserving its dining room, visit the center’s website at https://cnhcs.org

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