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Helen Keller seniors together again

A view of Helen Keller Services for the

A view of Helen Keller Services for the Blind in Huntington before closing all three of its senior centers, which provided services to the elderly who are blind and/or legally visually-impaired. (July 12, 2012) Credit: Kevin P. Coughlin

Clarissa Jost and Cynthia Andrews -- more than 20 years apart in age, both unable to drive -- may not have met if not for their shared disability.

Both started attending Helen Keller Services for the Blind's senior center in Huntington about four years ago. Every week since, they have looked forward to Thursdays, when they would gather with their friends, doing crossword puzzles, playing bingo and exercising.

In July, members, staff and volunteers found out the social services agency serving the visually impaired in Long Island and New York City would close its three senior centers because of its budget deficit.

"We felt dreadful," said Jost, 92, of Huntington. "What were we going to do on Thursdays?"

But about a month after the Huntington site closed, former employees, volunteers and clients have brought it back, as part of the Huntington Lions Club.

Based at St. Hugh of Lincoln Roman Catholic Church on Ninth Street in Huntington Station, members and volunteers in the Lions Club Senior Center for the Blind sat around a table there recently, doing a crossword puzzle, drinking coffee and eating bagels.

Completely volunteer run, the center will open two days a week, one fewer than at the former location on New York Avenue, about three miles away.

Many were happy and smiling on their first day back together on Tuesday, but some were also nervous about adjusting to a new space. As the first day back ended, volunteers focused on fundraising for food, supplies and the $50-per-day rent.

Andrews, 69, of Deer Park, sat next to Jost at the church, and said she never has to worry when she is there. The volunteers make sure she is safe, that she doesn't trip or fall. "This is the only place I walk in and instantly smile."

She said she was thrilled when she heard the center was reopening. "I would have jumped in the air, but I was in a wheelchair," she said laughing.

Bernard Hyman, 86, of Melville, plans to go to the church every Tuesday, as he did at the past site. But he said it is hard to reorient to a new place. "The other place was set up for people with vision problems," he said.

"Anything new for a disabled person is apprehensive," said Joan Elsner, 70, of Huntington. But she was happy to have her Tuesdays back with fellow seniors. "Tuesday was my day," said Elsner, who became legally blind as a child.

Debbie Costa, who worked at the former center and now volunteers along with about a dozen others, said she made numerous calls to find a new home for the program. Costa still works at Helen Keller as its Suffolk County rehabilitation coordinator.

John Dooley, president of the Lions Club, said the group will be covered under the Lions' insurance and will receive money from its budget. He said the club had donated to the center for years, and that money will be reallocated to the new site.

Costa said they will look for grants, but also accept donations that can be made out to the Huntington Lions Foundation, P.O. Box 304, Huntington, NY 11743.

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