The Best Lunch on the Upper East Side
|Krystal, who has developmental disabilities, helps serve lunch at the Carter Burden Center for the Aging, learning job skills and making new friends.|
The Carter Burden Center for the Aging Luncheon Club has always been about more than chicken Tuesdays, although the chicken is very popular. For some of the 3,000 elders served by the center, it is the most important meal of the day, but for others it’s more about the company. It is a club, after all.
Six years ago, a group of teen volunteers came to the Center to help serve lunch and pack boxed meals for elders unable to leave their homes. At first, some of the elders were skeptical, as these were young people with developmental disabilities and limited social skills. But today, the “kids,” as they are affectionately known, are welcomed by their Luncheon Club friends who make them Christmas cookies, give gifts, and share stories with them.
“At first they were very shy, but then we just started talking to them, and the next thing you know we’re all very friendly,” says Art LeMoine, a frequent luncher. “We help them break down barriers…and now they know our names and let us know when they’ve missed us.”
Most young people with autism, mental retardation, and other developmental disabilities go to special education schools. While a safe space, these schools isolate students from mainstream society. “Young adults with these disabilities are often regarded as too needy in their own right,” says Irfan Hasan, program officer at The Trust. “Because of this, there were no programs in the City where they were paired with elders.”
“The real joy of this program is that it helps build self-esteem. They are doing real work that provides valuable job experience while helping them to develop social skills,” says Bill Dionne, executive director of the Burden Center. He tells the story of when Dominic Chianese, who played Uncle Junior on the Sopranos, sang and played guitar for lunching seniors and volunteers. “Danny, who had come to the center a timid teen afraid to make eye contact, had become so comfortable and social that he started dancing and got some seniors to join him. He told us that this was the best day of his life. Dominic Chianese then turned to me and said it was the best day of his life, too.”
With a $65,000 grant, the Center will expand the program to bring disabled people from the Young Adult Institute and New York Center for Autism Charter School. “We are very excited that this grant is helping us start a relationship with Burden Center,” says Dr. Nancy Needle, a trustee of the charter school. “Getting our students out in to the community and helping them transition to life after school is a big priority.”
“We didn’t know how it would go at first, but this has turned out to be a remarkable program where everyone has truly benefited.” Bill Dionne continues: “Our volunteers are getting every bit as much as the people they are serving.”