They come by car, wheelchair, walker and scooter, but they all come for the same reason—fun and fellowship with a little good food thrown in.
Where? The Ramona Senior Center—it’s a happenin’ place.
Drop in any midday and you can sample the friendly banter of the dining room where nutritious lunches, prepared in the center’s own kitchen are served, or stand quietly watching as an eagle-eyed octogenarian lines up a five ball on the center pocket, take in the silence of the computer room, or listen to the gentle “swish” “swish” of playing cards in a tense game of bridge.
Or you can just sit in an easy chair in the lobby and watch the passing parade of lively seniors from Ramona and the surrounding area, many of whom consider the center to be their second home.
But this weekend is extra special for Ramona and its senior center, because this Saturday, Nov. 7, the center has a double celebration. It will celebrate its 35th anniversary as the county’s first authorized nutrition program for seniors, and it will mark the day with its 16th annual spaghetti dinner, bake sale and treasure trove in which attendees may buy tickets for a chance to win some great gifts donated by local merchants and individuals.
Dinner, with the spaghetti sauce created by the center’s executive director Ray Cardona’s wife, Lillian, who devotes two days to preparing it, will be served from 1 to 7 p.m. The cost is $8 a person, $4 for military members with identification, and kids 5 and under eat free.
For some housebound seniors, the center, headquartered in Ramona Community Center at 434 Aqua Lane, is their only contact with the outside world.
“In addition to an average of about 70 seniors served here at the center each day, we have 138 at-home seniors we deliver lunches to and some of them have said that our drivers are the only people they see all week,” said Cardona.
The suggested donation for the lunch, which is watched over by county nutritionists, is $4, but if you don’t have the $4—you still get lunch.
And those live-ins are remembered year–round with the VFW Ladies Auxiliary stopping by the center each month to get the names of seniors (first name only and approximate age) having a birthday that month, and then preparing a gift and card for each one. Each will also be remembered at Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Year’s, with a special celebratory meal on the day before, so that those with family can have a double celebration if they like, but nobody gets missed.
It creates a somewhat daunting task with three full-time cooks preparing all the food in the center’s kitchen. Everything is made fresh every day, including the desserts, and three specially equipped trucks are used for delivery.
“We used to deliver every day of the week but when gas prices started going up we had to cut back to Monday, Wednesday and Friday, delivering a hot meal for that day and a frozen one for the next,” said Cardona. (All frozen meals are still prepared in the center’s own kitchen.)
The delivery route stretches from Wynola to Pala, Pauma, Rincon and Valley Center, the Sunshine summit near the Riverside County line, Valley Center, Warner Springs, Ranchita and the La Jolla and Santa Ysabel Reservations.
“I realize that it means that some people get ‘lunch’ at 10.30 a.m. and some at 2.30 p.m., but everyone understands—two of the trucks cover 156 miles on each run,” said Cardona.
It adds up to quite an enterprise with the food bill topping $8,000 to $10,000 a month. The dairy goods bill is $1,600 and gas for the trucks varies from $1,300 to $2,700 a month. The county provides the vehicles but the center must provide everything to keep them operational.
The county provides 42 percent of the center’s $440,919 budget, the rest coming from fundraisers and financial support from other groups.
“But the whole thing could not possibly run,” said Cardona,” “without the incredible work of our almost 80 volunteers. This is a place for seniors, run by seniors. They elect their own board and step in whenever and wherever something needs to be done.”
There are 10 full-time employees—three cooks, four drivers (one for a shuttle that brings seniors to the center), Cardona, “my right arm and assistant, Jackie Creighton,” and the activities coordinator Christine Overton.
“Everything else that happens around here, happens because of the volunteers,” Cardona said.
The center serves as the Ramona Senior Center from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday and then becomes the Ramona Community Center, serving as a meeting place for local sports and service and community groups. The building is owned by the Ramona Municipal Water District and is operated by the Ramona Parks and Recreation Association with the senior center paying $1,200 a month rent as the primary user.
The center offers senior activities including classes in defensive driving, watercolor painting, quilting, arts and crafts, a computer club, pool tournaments (billiards) and bingo. There is also a 500-plus volume library, a movie library, bridge group, pokeno, writing classes and a travel club known as the Ramona Ramblers.