At the May Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation public board meeting, the Roosevelt Island Seniors Association (RISA) was approved to receive approximately $12,000 in public purpose funds (PPF) by a 5-to-1 vote. It was a moment the group had been waiting for for months.
The only naysayer was Board member Michael Shinozaki, who harshly questioned RISA President, Barbara Parker, for receiving compensation for teaching classes under the former RISA board while serving as its secretary. In July, that board lost its contract with the Department For The Aging (DFTA) to run the Island’s Senior Center. Parker explained that, at the time the board approved the payments, she never had any signatory rights, nor any dealings with the finances of the board.
And so, with a resounding yes, RISA is back in business.
I sat down with Barbara Parker to hear a little more about their path to approval and their future plans.
In late 2016, during the hearings for the distribution for the public purpose funds, RIOC advised RISA’s new board to withdraw their application for funds until the group cleared up lingering issues between RISA’s old board and DFTA – or at least until they were able to communicate to RIOC how their past PPF grant was used.
The new board had its work cut out for it. Parker says that the group’s previous PPF funds had been intertwined financially with its DFTA allocations under the previous RISA board and the Senior Center’s former director, Reema Townsend.
For three months, the RISA board members examined, analyzed, and meticulously divided the expenses from 2015 and 2016. RIOC had never required invoices as part of the PPF application, so RISA had none to show how the funds were used. They were ultimately able to provide RIOC with all necessary bank statements, even those currently held by DFTA. They reconstructed the budget to show that the extra funds distributed by RIOC were mainly used to supplement their top instructors’ salaries. RISA was then allowed to reapply for their pre-approved funds.
At the May RIOC meeting, Parker, along with RISA Vice President Donna Chenkin and Secretary Sherie Helstien, answered questions and presented materials to the Board. The Carter Burden Network’s Lisa Fernandez sat with Judy Berdy, who spoke in opposition to RISA being awarded funds, and with members of the former RISA board. Despite these hostile winds, and Shinozaki’s aggressive questioning which focused on actions by the former RISA board, the group got the approval.
RISA holds classes at the Senior Center in the evenings and weekends, when Carter Burden is not operating. Parker says the group welcomes cooperation and fraternity with any and all Island organizations. She points out that they recently handed over the space during their weekend hours so RIRA and Carter Burden could host a Mother’s Day event. They hope others will follow suit, but are worried that recent actions by Carter Burden, like not including RISA on an insurance certificate required during their hours of operations, will hinder Island spirit.
“For our part,” says Parker, “we will continue to be open and cooperate. We don’t want to fight, and we think the two organizations can complement each other.”
Parker is excited about the goings-on at her organization today. The group expanded its membership criteria to include a wider age range of adults, and she says they are very close to meeting their 100-member goal. They also offer several classes. Parker teaches Zumba and Basic Stretch for free, because, as she says, “that is what the members and organization need right now.” Strength building and chair pilates classes are taught at a very low cost by popular instructors, Rob Hoffman and Ivette Brown.
In addition to offering discount perks for senior members on the Island, RISA, along with Doryne Isley from Urban America, has built an environmentally friendly program that gives points for saving on air conditioning usage in buildings where tenants don’t pay utilities. The program includes an app that allows tenants to time their air conditioning usage. Those who save a certain amount get gift cards for various stores.
Beyond the classes and perks, Parker says the new RISA is intent on being as transparent as it can, making its financial records public. They will hold their next public meeting on June 21 at 7:00 p.m. at the Senior Center at 546 Main St.
What the Future Brings
Now that RISA is up and running and can finally look ahead, their plans are able to be finalized. This summer they will hold a jazz music social and several education and health workshops, including a workshop for the single-payer insurance program that is coming up the pipeline in New York state.
They will have a volunteer appreciation day in September, and both a Senior Day and a Bollywood event in October.
Over the coming year RISA, which is looking to rebrand and reinvigorate with a wider range of ages and more active adults, is planning several off-Island trips to the Botanical Gardens, museums, and even the Federal Reserve. These plans certainly could make one excited about the prospects of being over fifty on Roosevelt Island.