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Older Long Islanders find fun, companionship through online programs during pandemic

Patrons of Huntington Public Library display their own

Patrons of Huntington Public Library display their own takes on "Surreal COVID-19 Collage" that were created during an online art class taught by Lauren Singer on May 20, 2020.  Credit: Lauren Singer

What to do when you have lots of time and nowhere to go? Learn sign language, or how to knit or crochet? Read and discuss a book? Color with friends? Trace your family tree?

Long Island libraries, senior centers and businesses have stepped up their online offerings to keep people engaged and pass the time at home during New York’s “Pause,” an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2.

Seniors have a lot of options that don't require traveling farther than their computer screens. Often the virtual programs let them interact with the same group of people they once met for lunch at their senior center or during a library program, so they're seeing familiar faces.

At Brentwood Public Library, programs range from how-to craft sessions to exercise classes and a weekly chat session with librarian Julia Lane. "‘Coffee with a Librarian’ is popular," said Tom Tarantowicz, Brentwood director. "It's another avenue for people to talk." In a May session, 13 people joined in for an hour of chat midday.

The Town of Huntington Senior Center offers exercise videos on Optimum Channel 18 and FiOS Channel 38 at 6 and 9:30 a.m., noon, and 4 and 7 p.m., and on the center’s Facebook page. It has also expanded its musical programing because of demand and is working to add online programs, said director Julia Frangione.

Learning something new

How-to videos are big at South Huntington Public Library, where librarian Beth Pereira has posted a series of how-to-crochet videos. Other staffers have posted how-to videos in its New Skill Saturday program that range from making a reusable sign out of household items for drive-by graduation and get-well celebrations to how to make Boston baked beans or flowers from scrap fabric. The videos are available on the library's YouTube channel or its Facebook page.

"As long as we have them, we'll post them," said Catherine Schmoller, SHPL adult program coordinator. "We're all doing this on the fly. Once this happened, people started reaching out to us, saying 'I can offer this virtually.' All the libraries are stepping up."

Schmoller also sends out a weekly e-newsletter that lists the coming week's events, as well as the monthly newsletter. "It's harder to get the word out. People are starting to realize they have to go to the website and check in on what's happening,'' she said.

There they will see a notice that SHPL, along with other libraries in Suffolk and Nassau, will undertake a phased reopening starting in early June when staff returns to clean the library and update systems. Curbside pickup along with book returns and telephone assistance are expected to resume June 15 at South Huntington, and it hopes to open its doors to patrons on July 6, probably with restrictions in place, according to a note on its website from director Janet Scherer.

Patrons lonely for a sight of the library can tour it virtually using the 360 Tour feature on the library's homepage. Take a stroll through the lobby, visit the adult, children's and YA libraries, and check out the garden and lawn art.

Newsletters working hard

In Brentwood, the library sends a twice-monthly e-newsletter to patrons about the programs and services it's offering, and where to register to receive the information and links for online GoToMeeting sessions. Among the offerings for adults are Throwback Thursdays, where those attending get a glimpse of local history; Online Book Discussion; Genealogy 101; and Citizenship Class, to help attendees prepare for the U.S. citizenship test. The library also offers a number of teen and children's programs, as well as bilingual sessions and adult online courses in Spanish that cover beauty, massage or refrigeration classes.

"We're doing a lot of those kinds of things and the feedback has been incredible, people asking 'Give us more.' We can all understand that," said Tarantowicz, the director. "I think in the future we'll see even more online programs."

Prerecorded online craft classes run by Theresa Maritato, 42, of Rocky Point, a former librarian, are offered as Crafty Tuesdays at Brentwood and a number of other libraries. She's run sessions on making a DIY facial scrub using simple ingredients you may find at home, a beach terrarium, a DIY garland using fabric scraps, a special knotting technique to make a fabric collar for your pet, and a collage of your pet using old books and other materials.

Maritato had started filming the craft sessions shortly after libraries closed, and she offers trivia and bingo. As of late May, she has 20 videos that she can send to libraries along with a supply list as well as step-by-step instructions for the projects to post along with the video.

Dana and John Baldwin of Dix Hills love trivia and participate in Maritato's trivia programs offered at the Deer Park and Half Hollow Hills libraries. "We're a trivia couple, so it's fun."

Ideas, books and travel

The Huntington Public Library's OpEd Friday and Great Books Discussion Groups are both offered online, along with numerous other programs, including Kiss Me, Kill Me, a mystery book discussion group. HPL and other libraries also offer the Savvy Sightseer, a travelogue with Jeanne Schnupp that covers European destinations. A recent program showed tour spots in Ireland.

"We've had really good turnout for these," said Teresa Schwind, HPL assistant director. "People seem starved for activities."

The library is planning to offer online programming through the summer while opening details and plans are still fluid. It's planning on a phased reopening, with staff returning to clean and prepare, then offer curbside pickups and book returns if all goes well; the library hopes to open the doors in July in a restricted capacity, said director Joanne Adam.

Among the upcoming sessions is a series of classes to help potential authors get their books published, "So You Wrote a Book, Now What?" The five-week series on Saturday mornings starts June 20 and is designed to acquaint writers with steps in the process of publishing their work. Author Jeannie Moon will talk about the publishing landscape, query letters, synopses and manuscript preparation, working with editors and agents and independent publishing. (Class size is limited to 35 and registration is required.)

Facilitator Lauren Singer led a collage art class in which participants reflected on their experiences during the COVID-19 social-distancing existence, with another art class scheduled for July 20. Annina Luck leads a weekly Coloring, Art & Creativity Club on Thursdays via Zoom. (Interested? Send an email to Upcoming summer programs include Saving Seeds and Starting Plants with Renato Stafford on July 8 and All About Sports Memorabilia with Les Wolff on July 15.

Using Zoom for discussions during the library's Great Books Reading and Discussion Group was initially a challenge, but members have worked out how to share their viewpoints, said librarian Tom Cohn, who since 2005 has lead the monthly discussion of literature, philosophy and history classics.

They use readings from "Great Conversations 6," published by the Great Books Foundation. On June 22 the group will discuss "R.U.R.," by Czech author Karel Capek, a 1920 story that introduced the word robot to science fiction. (Contact Cohn at to receive a copy of the Reader, which also is available for Kindle.)

Retired Friends Academy teachers Rene Lape, 74, and Herb Lape, 70, of Huntington have attended the Great Books discussions for years and love that the library moved the discussions online. Attendance had grown over the past three years, said Rene, who had been going on and off since 2008.

Chris Lawrence, 67, of Huntington Station, said after four discussions, the online effort has become part of his life, although he prefers in-person discussions because they're more fluid and it's easier to pick up others' nonverbal cues. "It's not a bad substitute for the real thing," he said, adding that he appreciates Cohn's "light touch" in directing the discussion. "The variety of perspectives makes you think and helps expand your thinking," Lawrence said. "It uncovers the layers that maybe aren't apparent to you. It's so much richer an experience when you take it apart."

Keeping hands busy

Beyond libraries and senior centers, Long Island entrepreneurs are offering online programming. Knitters attending a weekly Zoom session to discuss new patterns and projects usually watch a video or two to learn a new technique — in one session it was how to block a knitting project using plastic knit blockers to help set its shape — then show completed works or works in progress, and chat about yarns, patterns and technique.

JoAnn Esposito, who owns The Knitting Garden in Huntington (, along with Suzana Jevtovic, who teaches there, organized the Zoom sessions in mid-March shortly after the stay-at-home order began. Those attending are all store customers, but Esposito said most didn't know one another before because they all came to the store on different schedules. The meetings have bonded the group.

"Knitting has been my therapy," said Jane Kline, 67, of Massapequa, a retired Bellmore-Merrick district science teacher. It keeps her hands busy and gives her something to work on. "It's a meditative process. Some things in knitting don't require much thought, but you do have to pay attention."

"I didn't know most of these women, but it was something I looked forward to. After a couple of meetings, I became invested in it."

Susan Klebanoff of North Hills said she found seeing fellow knitters’ projects inspiring and motivating when they display their projects during a call to show off a pattern. "It's a wonderful experience," Klebanoff she said.

Plethora of programs in Glen Cove

The Glen Cove Senior Center has moved everything from concerts and exercise classes to a chorus session and sign language classes online. The staff makes phone calls daily to stay in touch with members who were regular attendees, checking if they need meals, and has tried to offer consistency in programming, both social and learning, said Christine Rice, executive director.

Activities coordinator Eric Shuman has helped seniors get connected and is putting programming online, via Zoom and Facebook Live, including a live bingo session from his living room that had a trial run one Friday evening.

The center also is offering music performances by local artists from across the metropolitan area and has the budget to pay the artists, so "it's a win-win."

"In the last 25 days, 28,000 people have viewed our page," Shuman said in mid-May. "And our programming's not just benefiting seniors — it's almost [multi] generational. If grandma is taking an art class, other members of the family will join in the class. We'll have maybe 10 to 15 people on a livestream, or 20 to 25 if it's bad weather, and we can get 100 to 125 for an evening concert or lecture, then dozens will watch it afterward."

The online component is "really incredible," Shuman said. "We're reaching seniors we never reached before and not just in our catchment area. A lot of seniors who would not have known about us are learning about it. And we're reaching people from other parts of the country even.

"I think we'll be continuing this online component [when we return], especially at first," Shuman said, "since more than likely we'll have to limit attendance at the center."

Heide Decker, 53, of Bayville, a former senior center staffer who volunteered to teach an American Sign Language class when she worked there, now volunteers to teach a half-hour class weekly via Facebook Live. Each session she offers basic information, teaching the alphabet, adding new words and reviewing material from previous weeks. Decker said she's learned to wear a plain shirt so the hand signs show more clearly, and she takes care to explain how fingers should be positioned.

After getting a request for medical terms, she taught the signs for “doctor” and “nurse,” “how does it hurt” and how to ask for water. She has noticed the videos attract more views after they air as people watch or review sessions.

She's happy to volunteer to teach the class. "It makes me fearful for seniors to lose that special connection they have at the center," Decker said. "This helps maintain those connections."

The online classes form part of a social lifeline for Ruth Yuen, 86, of Glen Cove, who takes the online sign-language class along with several other classes, including a tai chi session. "I enjoy her class so much," said Yuen, who had taken Decker's ASL class at the center several years ago.

"I miss going to the center — I used to do line dancing, take a French class, exercise class, sign language — so many programs, I really miss it. When the weather is good I take a walk and I do some classes, it makes the day go fast," she said.

— Kay Blough

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