BY ANGELA BARBUTI
William Dionne has watched the Carter Burden Center for the Aging flourish in the 25 years he’s been its executive director. “It’s been ever growing. When I started there was just one location. We now have nine different locations,” he said of the philanthropic organization that provides services for New Yorkers 60 and older.
When he began there in 1991, the center was assisting 1,500 seniors. It now helps 5,000 with 3,500 volunteers and a staff of 85. Dionne says his work at CBCA keeps him enthusiastic and quite busy, since the landscape for elderly residents is constantly changing. “The issues that we’re facing in aging today are very different than the ones we were looking at 25 years ago. And the gaps in service and need just keep growing,” he explained.
As for initiatives that have launched since his tenure began, one has been the building of a facility on East 99th Street to house 1,700 people after the decommissioning of the Coler-Goldwater Hospital on Roosevelt Island. Another worthwhile project they’ve instituted is an art gallery in Chelsea where reemerging senior artists can exhibit their work.
What is your business background? Did you have experience in nonprofits?Yes, I did. My degree is in health administration. I have worked in the aging field for over 35 years. I got involved on the board of directors for a community-based organization in Park Slope and being on the board for a few months, they asked me if I would consider being executive director. That was 30 years ago and I just fell in love with the idea of continuing my work in aging, which I had done in nursing homes before that and being able to embrace the community. After being there for five years, I was approached by the Carter Burden Center to apply for the position as the executive director. And here I am, 25 years later, still the executive director. If someone would have told me that, I would have said, “That is crazy.” But it has just been an amazing organization.
What does your job entail? What is a typical day like for you there?A typical day is that nothing is ever typical. And it’s interesting because in my life I tended to have jobs for four year and then I would want to move on. But it’s been a position that just keeps me excited because we’re always looking at new things to help better serve the community. Carter Burden was a city councilman and started the center 47 years ago because he had so many older folks coming to his office, that he recognized there was a need for aging services and he went to his family foundation, so the Carter Burden Center was born from philanthropy and it just kept growing.
How do you find the artists featured in the Carter Burden Gallery?We merged with an organization called Elder Craftsmen and their location is right across the street from FIT. And our assistant director said, “This could be an interesting gallery.” We had no idea what the needs would be, but we knew that we wanted it to focus on aging artists. Your question is a great one about how we get artists. It’s word of mouth. The community is, I guess, they’re great gossips or something, and each share with each other the fact that there’s this gallery. And the art world, the gallery world especially, is very ageist. They’re always looking for the new, emerging artist. Whereas our gallery is looking at what we refer to as reemerging artists, artists who have had a passion and career in art but because of their age, have a hard time figuring out where they can exhibit their work. We have now shown hundreds of artists with hundreds and hundreds of artists waiting to show.
What is one of CBCA’s projects you’re proud of?We have worked with probably five different senior centers, some of which were underperforming. And I remember opportunities where we would get to a center — the Department for Aging is an example — where we were expecting to serve 60 meals. And what in fact was happening was they were only serving 30. As a result of Carter Burden Center getting involved, we have seen the centers triple and quadruple. So I’m very proud of that, but I think if I were to say one thing that is overarching in all of our programs is how welcoming each of them are. There is this idea that we are really in the hospitality business.
You also serve meals to the homebound.We serve about 1,200 meals a day in total. But with regards to the homebound population, we do a meals-on-wheels, where we have people literally bring food to people’s homes. The importance of that program is that many of the folks we’re serving are people that we may well be the only contact that they have. Oftentimes there’s not family involved, so we’re the people that recognize what’s happening in people’s lives. Because of the consistency of delivery, we can see when there’s changes in their lives. It’s a great way for us to advocate, but also be the mouthpiece for their needs.
Tell us about why the 99th Street facility was created.There was the decommissioning of the Coler-Goldwater Hospital on Roosevelt Island. And when that happened, there were 1,700 people who needed to be placed in other facilities. The building on 99th Street was built for that purpose of housing some of those folks who were deemed to be able to live in independent housing. However, some of the folks had been living in the hospital for 22 years. So imagine going from a situation where you were living in institutional care for 22 years and then being put in a facility where you’re living independently. Of course, that needed to be stopped. Carter Burden’s role in the center is really looking at quality of life issues and programs.
Your Associates Council program, a group of young professionals, visits seniors and deliver meals. Yes, every month they do a meal delivery. The wonderful thing about that is that the program has been going on for so long that one of the first associates stayed with the program to the point that she joined the board and is now the treasurer. She has grown with us from right out of college. For a lot of folks who may be here, not living near their grandparents, many of those associates have said that’s why they joined the committee because they miss the aging contact. It’s also wonderful in breaking the divide of generations and the misconceptions of generations. It really has proven to be a wonderful program and my favorite part is that every year they will throw a senior ball and pay for everything for the seniors. They get music and all of them come and dance. It’s just a wonderful event.
For more information, visit www.carterburdencenter.org