SOUTH PLAINFIELD –The South Plainfield Senior Center, local organizations and members of the community are taking care of South Plainfield’s senior citizens, making sure they are safe and know that they are not forgotten during the COVID-19 quarantine.  South Plainfield Senior Center staff members are keeping a vigilant watch over seniors with phone calls and care packages.  The staff has handmade nearly 450 face masks so far and have continued their Meals on Wheels deliveries, providing 3,000 meals to homebound seniors since March 13.  The South Plainfield community is also making great efforts to help with generous donations of meals, soaps, crafts, books, puzzles and much more.      

“It's important for the seniors to know that they are appreciated, and we're thinking of them,” said Senior Center Executive Director Tree Olano. “I know that they're scared, and I know that they want to get back here.  We miss them so much and just want to help them in any way we can, so we all can get through this time.”

Throughout the year, hundreds of seniors enjoy the center’s plentiful activities, classes, trips and parties.  A second home to many, the center offers a place to socialize with one another.  Olano says that being isolated in their homes during quarantine has been extremely difficult for seniors.  

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“We get phone calls every day asking if they can come in or about when we think the center will open,” Olano added.  “Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday were the big days when everyone was here.  There are a ton of classes scheduled during the week, and there are about 120 seniors at the center all day.  They would come in the morning for coffee and then there was Zumba, then lunchtime, and they stay for crafts.  I would love hearing about their weekends and what everyone was up to.  It’s just so much fun.”

The Senior Center looks very different these days without the seniors livening up the day with good friends and laughter, but the staff as well as numerous community members and organizations are working to reach out to the town’s beloved senior population. 

Superintendent of Schools Dr. Noreen Lishak donated 250 lunch bags full of milk, fruit, veggies, sandwich, and cereal.  South Plainfield resident Melissa Menkin donated milk, chips and sugar-free soda. Co-Owner of Twin City Pharmacy and Board of Education member, Tommy Cassio, delivered 30 cases of chips from Herr’s donated by Eddie Eggert. Former Council President Ray Rusnak delivers meals to seniors throughout town on Mondays and Thursdays.  Shoprite in South Plainfield also donates food and items weekly.

“It’s unbelievable,” Olano said.  “It's like a store in our all-purpose room. You can just go shopping for all different kinds of chips and snacks in there, so we’re putting everything into lunches and care packages.” 

Owner of Sal’s Spirit Shop and South Plainfield resident of 56 years, Sal Severini, has been on a special mission to uplift spirits throughout town with food.  Severini has been purchasing and donating pizza, pizza making kits, sandwiches, and much more to people all through the borough.  His generosity has drawn attention and donations, which he uses to continue offering meals to the community.  Severini has taken a special interest in the Senior Center and makes sure to deliver an abundance of food to the center every week.  

“I don’t do it for the recognition, I do it because I love South Plainfield,” Severini said.  “I try to get the senior center 15 to 20 pizza pies a week.  On Fridays, I try to get them at least 20 to 30 half subs and chips.”

South Plainfield Restaurants who are participating in Severini’s quest to help include Luigi’s Pizza, Ciccios’s Pizza, Mr. Subs, K.C.’s Korner, Salerno Pizza Restaurant, as well as Ellery’s Grill in Middlesex and Café Gallo in Edison. Between Severini’s personal donations, restaurant donations and price reductions as well as community member cash donations, Severini is able to provide numerous meals for not the seniors, but for many in the community as well.

“Sal has been bringing pizzas during the week and sandwiches on Fridays, which everyone is so grateful for,” Olano said.  “We put them into lunch boxes for door drops.  This way, the seniors have something special for the weekend because the weekends are tough.  Even if they're not really afraid or uncomfortable going to the stores, the stores are way too crowded on the weekends.”

The staff is also finding inventive ways to keep everyone engaged and lift spirits.  Senior Center employee, Sharon Ciullo, is the Driver for Middlesex County Meals on Wheels and heads the Senior Center Outreach program. 

“We are a good family, between the staff and the seniors that come in,” Ciullo said.  “I miss them all so much.”

Ciullo has been working from home and is using social media to keep the Senior Center community engaged online with daily messages of hope and humor.  Ciullo also includes fun activities like “Guess the Senior.”     

“Sharon posts a baby picture, and we give clues about the person, and then we have people guess who it is,” Olano said.  “It's fun!  She gives little clues every day.  Sharon doesn't want to stop doing anything, so she's been pushing herself and doing such an amazing job”

“I’ve been posting positive messages every day on Facebook trying to just keep everybody happy and give them something to look forward to,” Ciullo said.  “I’m trying to give a positive outlook so that they're not down.”

Another role Ciullo has undertaken during quarantine is daily phone calls to check on everyone.

“When I call, the seniors seem to be doing well,” Ciullo said.  “Some days are easier than others.  They want to get back to normal, and they're all going stir crazy staying in the house so it's a long day for them as well as everybody else.  They just seem to just want to get out of the house.  A lot of our homebound seniors don’t even have family, so sometimes we’re the only ones who are calling them.”

Ciullo says the heartbreak of losing a loved one from the COVID-19 virus has hit close to home. 

“We’ve had loss at the senior center,” Ciullo said.  “Somebody’s son died, and you just want to hug someone, but you can’t.  No contact is very hard for a lot of us.”

While everyone in the world is working to cope with the virus and subsequent restrictions, Ciullo says seniors, especially, need support.

“I wake up with a good feeling when it’s a sunny day because they can go out in their yards,” Ciullo said.  “The weather changes everything, and we’re just trying to keep them upbeat.  If they have any needs, we’re just trying to take care of them and get them what they need.  Sometimes it’s just to chat on the phone, so we’re here for them for anything.”

Ciullo says she’s been calling between 20 to 40 people a day.  From a friendly voice on the other end of the phone line to making sure they have groceries, Ciullo wants to be of service to her charges.

“I was on the phone with someone last week for 45 minutes, just talking because I could hear it in their voice, they just needed to talk,” Ciullo said.  “I could tell that they were lonely.  I love my job when I do Meals on Wheels and being at the center.  Being able to reach out to talk to people now is important because people need to feel connected.”

With the help of community donations, the staff has been able to make weekly door stops to provide seniors with reminders that they are valued and loved.  Thanks to community support, they were able to assemble 25 Easter baskets and 150 “Thinking of You” bags.

Senior Center employee, Angelo Paradiso, is a driver with the center, and has delivered numerous meals for the homebound over the years.  Normally, his job entails transporting seniors to and from appointments as well.  These days, Paradiso is working hard to deliver not only meals, but “Thinking of You” bags and protective face masks.  Paradiso does whatever is necessary to make sure seniors have what they need, according to Olano, which includes frequent trips to local stores to pick up supplies and donations.  Paradiso also makes sure the center is sanitized to ensure the safety of all.

“Angelo has been so helpful in delivering to the seniors,” Olano said.  “From picking up donations from Shoprite on Sundays to making the rounds to seniors to deliver care packages and meals, he has been wonderful through all of this.”

Numerous donations of meals and items were provided by local restaurants and organizations.  Games, books and other small projects to help prevent boredom were also donated by the South Plainfield Public Library and private donations. 

“The outpouring of love and generosity has been incredible,” said Tree. “I would like to personally thank everyone in the community who has graciously donated to the seniors in a multitude of ways to help them get through this difficult time.”South Plainfield resident Marc Luster and manager Ryan Scherer of CVS in Livingston donated a large quantity of candy and baskets so Senior Center staff were able to assemble Easter baskets for the seniors.

Library Director Linda Hansen donated 100 bags for seniors to hang on their doors so the staff would safely distribute food to them for door stops.  Hansen also donated numerous hard cover books, coloring books and word search books.

“Many of the seniors were asking for books because they’re bored, so I reached out to Linda Hanson from the library, and she gave me a bunch of hardcover books,” Olano said.  “So now I have a whole library of books.  We wrote on Facebook that if they want a book or a puzzle or if they need a mask to call us we’ll put a package together, and they can pick it up curbside.”

The donations allow for curbside pickups and weekly door drops that bring great joy to both staff and seniors. “Thinking of You” bags are dropped off weekly to door steps, distributed 50 at a time through town.  Pencils and pens, water, healthy threats, meals, soap, word puzzles and much more are left each week.  Each drop off is signed, “We miss you, Love, the Senior Center.”  Olano said she gets regular calls of appreciation from the seniors saying how grateful they are for the community donations and Senior Center staff for the loving gestures.

“Many of the Meals on Wheels recipients don’t have family around, so I’m sometimes the only person they see,” Ciullo said.  “So I’m so excited I get to see them when I drop off the goodies.  We wear masks and stay at a safe distance.  They do appreciate it.  We also get calls at the senior center asking if we’re ok.  We’re all family and look out for each other.”

“We get very creative with the ‘Thinking of You’ bags,” Olano said.  “We have a lot of seniors who take yoga, so we created bags with a list of yoga exercises they could do with Dove hand soap that was donated and paint by numbers with a little healthy treat.  They just want to be busy because they don’t have anything to do, so we try to include activities that interest them.”  

“Normally, the center is a very active place, and we have a lot of seniors that come, and they come there because they love to be around everybody,” Ciullo said.  “Our parties are very popular and people miss that, so to be able to give a smile to somebody at their door stop is really nice because they miss that the contact.  They miss seeing people so to be able to deliver a smile to the door is amazing for all of us.  I haven’t seen them since before Easter and I miss them all so much.”  

Safety is a concern for everyone these days and the Senior Center continues to make masks for the community.   Administrative Assistant to the Director, Linda Fiore, is manning the center with Olano.  Fiore has been hard at work making fabric masks on a donated sewing machine for seniors and community members.  With the help of Grace McGuinnis, who leads the craft program, Gracefully Made, and other volunteers cutting fabric, Fiore has been able to make hundreds of face masks.  Senior Center member Ann LePeore made 50 of the masks, and they have so far made 440 masks in total.      

“I want to personally thank Linda Fiore for making the masks,” Olano said.  “People are picking them up between 2pm-3pm every day.  She’s been amazing.”

According to Olano, the Senior Center has always been the hub of activity and a place of comfort for the older generation of South Plainfield.  The staff, along with the South Plainfield community, are working hard to make sure that the center continues to offer that comfort and support for them.

“It's a long day, especially when seniors are by themselves,” Ciullo said.  “I feel good about what we're doing.  People are very appreciative that we're calling and doing door drops.  I love the people at the center.  I don't like to hear the sadness in their voice, but I try to keep them upbeat, and they are hopeful.”

“I'm confident that we’re going to get through this together, and we're definitely going to have the biggest party ever after this is over,” Olano said.  “The Senior Center is about being there for one another, especially when things are difficult, that's what South Plainfield is about too.”