Royalton senior center struggles to make ends meet

Executive Director Sue Pirie, center, talks to Martha Fisk, right, president of the board of directors, before lunch is served at the Royalton Area Senior Citizens Center in Royalton, Vt., on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024. About a dozen seniors stopped in for lunch on Tuesday, which Pirie said is the average attendance. “We used to have a full house before COVID,” she said, noting that demand for Meals on Wheels has risen and several seniors are still taking advantage of the grab and go meal option that started during the pandemic. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Executive Director Sue Pirie, center, talks to Martha Fisk, right, president of the board of directors, before lunch is served at the Royalton Area Senior Citizens Center in Royalton, Vt., on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024. About a dozen seniors stopped in for lunch on Tuesday, which Pirie said is the average attendance. “We used to have a full house before COVID,” she said, noting that demand for Meals on Wheels has risen and several seniors are still taking advantage of the grab and go meal option that started during the pandemic. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photos / Report For America - Alex Driehaus

Volunteer Claire Brock, center, of Tunbridge, Vt., delivers dessert to lunch attendees at the Royalton Area Senior Citizens Center in Royalton, Vt., on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Volunteer Claire Brock, center, of Tunbridge, Vt., delivers dessert to lunch attendees at the Royalton Area Senior Citizens Center in Royalton, Vt., on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Clockwise from top left, Marge Turner, of East Bethel, Vt., Ilse Knowles, of East Bethel, and Mary Lamb, of Randolph, Vt., package lunch leftovers into meals for home delivery at the Royalton Area Senior Citizens Center in Royalton, Vt., on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024. Volunteers prepare over 100 meals for dine in, grab and go, and home delivery recipients. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Clockwise from top left, Marge Turner, of East Bethel, Vt., Ilse Knowles, of East Bethel, and Mary Lamb, of Randolph, Vt., package lunch leftovers into meals for home delivery at the Royalton Area Senior Citizens Center in Royalton, Vt., on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024. Volunteers prepare over 100 meals for dine in, grab and go, and home delivery recipients. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photos / Report For America - Alex Driehaus

From left, volunteers Claire Brock, of Tunbridge, Vt., Marge Turner, of East Bethel, Vt., Ilse Knowles, of East Bethel, Mary Lamb, of Randolph, Vt., and Larry Parmenter, of South Royalton, Vt., package lunch leftovers into meals for home delivery at the Royalton Area Senior Citizens Center in Royalton, Vt., on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024. The group of volunteers works to prepare, serve and package meals at the senior center every Tuesday and Thursday. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

From left, volunteers Claire Brock, of Tunbridge, Vt., Marge Turner, of East Bethel, Vt., Ilse Knowles, of East Bethel, Mary Lamb, of Randolph, Vt., and Larry Parmenter, of South Royalton, Vt., package lunch leftovers into meals for home delivery at the Royalton Area Senior Citizens Center in Royalton, Vt., on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024. The group of volunteers works to prepare, serve and package meals at the senior center every Tuesday and Thursday. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

The Royalton Area Senior Citizens Center is housed in the Royalton Academy Building in Royalton, Vt., on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024. After the end of pandemic-era funding and the closure of the South Royalton Senior Citizens Thrift Store, the senior center is looking for new funding sources to help cover their costs. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

The Royalton Area Senior Citizens Center is housed in the Royalton Academy Building in Royalton, Vt., on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024. After the end of pandemic-era funding and the closure of the South Royalton Senior Citizens Thrift Store, the senior center is looking for new funding sources to help cover their costs. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus

By LIZ SAUCHELLI

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 02-04-2024 9:01 PM

Modified: 02-05-2024 4:16 PM


ROYALTON — A group of women gathered at a table at the South Royalton Area Senior Citizens Center, waiting for lunch to be served.

They talked about the weather — cold, but at least the snow was holding off — and exchanged news about the goings on in the White River Valley towns where they live.

“I always said I’d never go to a senior center with all those old people,” Peg Millitor, of Bethel, said in an interview last month at the Royalton Academy Building, where the senior center is located. “But it’s nice to visit with people.”

Millitor, 83, started attending the weekly Tuesday meals last summer after her friend and fellow Bethel resident Rella Cyr, 87, told her about them. A Tri-Valley Transit bus picks them up in Bethel and brings them to the senior center before bringing them home again. Sometimes, there’s live music or other programs. Even though the meals are generally viewed as delicious — that Tuesday it was turkey, gravy, vegetables, a roll and chocolate cake with vanilla frosting for dessert — the camaraderie is the biggest draw.

“It’s a nice place,” said Cyr, who has been attending the meals for around four years.

But there are concerns that the South Royalton Senior Center’s operations are not sustainable. Due to the end of COVID-19 pandemic era funds, rising food costs and mileage reimbursement rates, the senior center is struggling to maintain funding levels to serve residents who primarily live in Royalton, Bethel, Sharon and Strafford.

The center’s operating budget for the last fiscal year was around $134,000, according to data provided by senior center director Susan Pirie. The senior center brought in around $115,000 from federal, state and town funding, as well as donations and fundraising.

To fill in the gap, the center has had to take about $3,000 a month from its reserve fund in the last year or so. Food and containers for home-delivered meals are among its biggest expenses.

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“When that money runs out, the center will be forced to close,” Sue Coburn, a Strafford resident who serves as treasurer on the senior center’s board, said during a board meeting last month. There’s around $45,000 in the reserve account. “We can’t keep going at this rate.”

The center holds two congregate meals a week — one in Royalton and the other on Wednesdays at South Strafford’s Barrett Hall. On Tuesdays, three drivers also deliver meals to around 70 people living in the area each week. Most recipients receive five meals — one hot, and four frozen to eat throughout the week.

In December 2023, the center served 45 congregate meals, 796 home-delivered meals and 194 “grab and go” meals, according to data provided by Pirie.

While the annual number of home-delivered meals have generally stayed steady — around 10,000 a year in the last two fiscal years — the costs have increased from mileage reimbursement to packaging to the cost of food itself, especially protein. The center regularly receives food donations from nonprofit organizations including Willing Hands and Pirie is always on the look out for deals.

In the past, the South Royalton Senior Citizens Thrift Store helped make up for the budget deficits. But in the couple years leading up to the thrift store’s closure in 2021, Pirie said, it was losing money.

“It was actually costing us money to run the thrift shop,” she said in a phone interview last month.

The center’s greatest challenge has become making up a $5 per meal difference in the cost versus the federal funds available to the center. Each meal costs around $9.07. The center receives $4.64 per meal through federal Older Americans Act funding.

The $4.64 per meal rate reflects a boost in state funding. The meal reimbursement rate for fiscal year 2023, which ended Sept. 30, was just $3.80. Last year, the Legislature approved an additional $1 million as part of the state’s general fund budget for senior nutrition programs throughout the state.

To boost revenue, the board has turned to new sources of income and is busy coming up with new fundraisers. In order to receive funding under the Older Americans Act, senior centers cannot charge anyone age 60 and older for meals, but can ask for donations.

At Town Meeting this year, voters in each of the four towns will be asked to increase their tax contributions to the senior center. The board also is hosting an “empty bowl” fundraiser on Feb. 9, during which people can purchase a handmade bowl and fill it with homemade soups. The center also has sent out fundraising appeals.

“You’re going to get the same people who always donate,” said Eric Richardson, a Bethel resident who joined the board in honor of his late mother, a regular congregate meal attendee. “We’ve just got to think of more ideas.”

Among those ideas are ways to bring people back to the center for congregate meals. People who attend congregate meals tend to donate more money per meal, as well as participate in fundraisers such as raffles.

“Pre-COVID, it used to be full,” Richardson said as he looked around the room where a couple dozen people used to gather weekly for Tuesday lunches; Now, 15 is considered a robust crowd. “I don’t know what we’re going to do to get them back.”

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.

CORRECTION: Proceeds from the South Royalton Senior Citizens Thrift Store supported the South Royalton Senior Center before it closed in 2021. The name of the thrift store and the year it closed was incorrect in a story about the South Royalton Senior Center's funding challenges.