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Cooking Up Some Very Strong Connections ...

August 16, 2007 By:
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Members of SeniorCHAI (from left) Sara Weingram, Helena Swerdlik and chef Carmella Bruno enjoy their time together during Cooking Club sessions.

Neither 90-degree temperatures nor stifling humidity deterred members of the SeniorCHAI Cooking Club from their regular meeting in the kitchen of the Congregations of Shaare Shamayim in Northeast Philadelphia. There were potatoes to peel and boil, salad vegetables to chop up and toss, and a giant vat of soup to prepare for the Mitzvah Food Pantry site at the Klein Branch of the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Philadelphia.

Seven women and one lone but very happy man set to work unloading the shopping bags from AmeriCorps*VISTA Volunteer Development Coordinator Amy Purdy's car, assembling the ingredients and organizing the utensils. The "chef" of the month -- a club member who volunteers to share a favorite recipe -- prepares the shopping list, hands out assignments, and the production begins.

Purdy, who scours the city for the freshest produce and the highest-quality ingredients on the list, is particularly pleased that club members selected a menu that was low in fat and high in fiber.

"The Cooking Club emphasizes that food can be nutritious and delicious when it is prepared and shared with friends," she said.

The entree for July's culinary adventure was gnocchi, an authentic Italian "family favorite" from Carmella Bruno, a member of SeniorCHAI since the program's inception. She loves to cook, but has little opportunity to ply her skills now that her children are grown.

Through the Cooking Club, she has adopted a surrogate family that appreciates her talents and helps her to forget about her numerous health issues.

"When I am with my new 'sisters and 'brother,' I feel so much better," she said.

SeniorCHAI project manager Sam Rosen knows that Carmella's story is not unique: "I have seen many people, some of whom were shut-ins, become more social and form relationships with one another."

Bruno is one of some 230 residents of Philadelphia's Bustleton-Somerton neighborhoods helped by this collaborative program initiative to lead less isolated, richer lives in their own homes or apartments. The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia is the lead agency of this partnership, which includes the Jewish Family and Children's Service, the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Philadelphia, the Jewish Employment and Vocational Service and Federation Housing.

The program, which currently charges seniors an annual fee of $36 for access to a vast network of programs and services, was started in 2005 as an expansion of the STAR-NORC programs developed by JFCS.

Each SeniorCHAI participant is assigned a Member Services Representative who explains any available community resources, and connects members with the services they need or desire. Included in the cost of membership is: access to resources that can make homes safer; assistance with home repairs and chores; assistance with transportation to medical programs and/or the many luncheons, holiday celebrations and educational programs sponsored by Senior Chai at local synagogues and the JCC Klein Branch.

The JCC Klein Branch and area synagogues provide space for SeniorCHAI programming.

Jacques Lurie, executive director of the Congregations of Shaare Shamayim, believes that the intergenerational aspects of many of the programs are mutually beneficial. Lurie, who also serves as director of the religious school, explains that students who do not have or seldom see their grandparents learn how to develop relationships with older adults.

Moreover, the men and women of SeniorCHAI have the satisfaction of developing a rapport with young people and sharing their skills, talents and stories.

Cooking Up a Little Romance

The Klein Branch lunch room was the place where SeniorCHAI members Daniel Lyons and Belle Rosner first met.

The widower and widow have since become life partners, and participate together in many activities sponsored by agencies within the SeniorCHAI collaborative.

Lyons enjoys learning to cook many different types of cuisine and relishes his unique role as the Cooking Club's chief schlepper.

"I help the women unload the groceries, and lift the heavy packages, pots and pans," he explained. He is pleased that the soup he helps to prepare benefits those who are hungry through the Mitzvah Pantry Food Network.

Rosner delights in Lyons' company, and considers herself "extremely lucky to have met such a lovely, kind man at this stage in my life."

Like many of the SeniorCHAI participants who have called Northeast Philadelphia home for much of their lives, Rosner and Lyons discovered that they traveled in similar social circles and have many friends in common. Through their shared involvement in SeniorCHAI, they have made many more.

SeniorCHAI membership is open to men and women ages 60 and older who live in the Bustleton-Somerton neighborhoods of Northeast Philadelphia.

For more information, call 1-866-229-6672.

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