Two summers ago, the 20 regulars of the Georgetown Senior Citizen Center watched helplessly as the program that had brought them fellowship and modest lunches five days a week ended, a victim of government regulations and private agency belt-tightening.
When the center closed, the elderly friends went separate ways, for the most part, although some kept in touch by phone and others bumped elbows at corner stores or met occasionally at one of two other senior centers in the area. But Nina Crowther Martin, who for four years had walked the two blocks from her apartment to the center at the rear of Dumbarton United Methodist Church, refused to visit a new place.
"To me, [the Dumbarton center] was home. I didn't want to go anywhere else," she said recently.
Last month, however, Martin and the other regulars at Dumbarton marked the first anniversary of a new one, the result of money raised by Georgetown residents and business people who wanted to "take care of their own." Many say the donations that poured in to help reestablish a center reflect the kind of community spirit that has become increasingly important because of federal budget cuts and the local dollar-stretching measures that followed.
"It's a case of Georgetown doing for Georgetown," said Martin.
Martin, about 20 of her old friends and 22 newcomers to the Georgetown Senior Citizen Center now meet regularly in the airy, peach-colored fellowship hall at St. John's Georgetown Church Parish at 3240 O St. NW, a block west of Wisconsin Avenue.
They come three days a week for homemade quiches and soups, and for the kind of chatter and gossip found in most lunchrooms. For some, it is the closest personal contact they have all day.
"Older people need the friendship of people their own age," said Argie Sorenson, who, like Martin, was a regular at the old center. Marie Hinkle, Marie Hack, John Schwoyer, Mary Flaherty and Sylvia Tipp also returned to a group that considers any member under 70 a youngster. The seniors in a recent lunch crowd declined to give their ages.
Although they credit the Georgetown community with providing some of the money to start a new center, most of their gratitude goes to Virginia Luce Allen.
Allen, a commercial art consultant and designer, had just retired with a back injury last summer when Martin and Flaherty, determined to reunite old friends in a place they could call their own, asked her to help start a new one. The Dumbarton center had been closed because attendance was not high enough to justify its operating costs, according to federal standards, and because there were two other centers in Northwest.
Initially expecting to help only "with a little fund raising," Allen used more than $600 of her own money to get the program started and has worked as its fund-raiser and director without pay for the past year.
The initial community support has waned, however, Allen said, and keeping the program operating is becoming more difficult.
Although the church donates space, Allen still must come up with the $300 a month for lunches. She solicits money from residents and businesses throughout the city. Allen said she had hoped that Georgetown businesses would make regular contributions but few have.
"They come in the mornings and close in the evenings," she said. "They're not thinking of this as their community."
Allen said she also has difficulty getting contributions from other parts of the city because Georgetown has a reputation as a wealthy enclave. "So many people say, 'You don't have lonely, poor people in Georgetown.' But yes, we do," Allen said. "Many come from the days when Georgetown was full of blue-collar families. They weren't the career women like today."
Many of those who regularly attend the center are like Martin, who has lived in Georgetown for more than 70 years, and as a child was the daughter of one of the ministers of the Dumbarton church. She now lives with her dog, Muffin, in an efficiency apartment and cooks most of her meals on a hot plate.
Allen said the center's lunches are often the most nutritious meal of the day for some of the seniors.
But more important than the hot meals, films, bingo games and field trips to the Decorator's Show House and the Kennedy Center (they are still raving about "Annie"), Allen said, is the warmth among people who care about each other and enjoy being together. That warmth is in stark contrast to the cold, institutional stereotype of the senior citizen center.
"It's a warm and caring place where they know they're not alone," Allen said.