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Once nomadic, senior group finds solace in new home Deer Park Bible Church is Finksburg Friends' new digs


FINKSBURG -- June Ward lost her husband three months ago, and the Finksburg Friends surrounded her with compassion.

"They helped me a lot," she said tearfully, as Evelyn Schillaci patted her gently on the back.

A few months ago, those friends, formerly members of the Finksburg Senior Center, could not have gathered around Ward. They were scattered around the county without a meeting place to call their own.

"We were homeless and nameless," said Vince Zito.

The original center opened four years ago. Its 35 members met three days a week for cards, crafts and activities planned by Site Manger Suzanne "Suzie" Santalucia.

"It helped keep us healthy and gave us a good outlook," said Elsie Cornwell, who at 87 is the oldest of the group and the only one willing to tell her age.

"When I lost my husband, my friends got me involved in seniors groups. If it hadn't been for that, I know I would be down the road," she said.

Last summer, water problems closed their center. Membership fell off as they searched for another location. Unable to find a building that was both affordable and met the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the county Bureau of Aging asked the group to merge with the South Carroll Center.

They tried, they said, but the groups didn't mesh.

"We just didn't feel at home; we were the outsiders," said Schillaci. "I think they resented us a little. It was like there was a line between us."

Zito said many South Carroll members had belonged there for several years and were "very possessive" of their space.

"It was too far for many of us to drive," said Cornwell, a resident of the Greens in Westminster.

They stopped attending, and many said they felt loneliness creeping back.

"We're good friends and have been together a long time," said Jane Phenicie. "We wanted a place where we could stay together."

Several churches contacted the county Department of Citizen Services, offering to help, said Director Jolene Sullivan.

"We have to comply with the Americans [with] Disabilities Act, but a church doesn't," said Sullivan. "Many senior organizations meet in those churches, but the county cannot sponsor them."

Budget constraints also hindered the Finksburg group in its search. Members considered meeting at Reese Fire Hall, but they couldn't afford the cost of heating or air conditioning at the building.

Deer Park Bible Church came to their rescue.

"This church has been wonderful to us, even though none of us belong here," said Zito. "They got word to us and offered us the facility and never asked for anything in return."

He said members all give a weekly donation to cover the cost of heat and electricity.

"This place is accessible, and all they ask is for us to take care of the building," said Cornwell.

The Rev. Thomas F. Cantville, pastor of the church for 13 years, said the seniors can meet in the church "forever."

"We want people there to enjoy each other's company," he said.

With the help of Santalucia, the friends have planned many activities, including exercise classes and field trips, and hope to draw back former members. Kathy Brown of Shepherd's Staff, a Westminster charity group, will start them on a crafts project. At 1:30 p.m. Thursday, Rite-Aid Drug Stores is sponsoring a show starring singer Joe Gravlin.

"They are stepping out on their own," said Santalucia.

For now, they have settled back into a familiar routine, meeting twice a week. Zito arrives first and puts on the coffee. Someone bakes a pie or brings doughnuts.

"We talk about everything," said Phenicie. "People are afraid to stay away. They might miss something."

They get up a game of pinochle or take out their needle crafts.

"You might get up bluesy, but you have a place to go," said Schillaci. "My doctor said this group is the best thing I can do for myself."

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