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Sunnyside Community Services


Sunnyside Community Services (SCS) serves more than 9,000 children, youth, adults, and seniors in Western Queens each year. Their mission is to enrich the lives of residents by providing caring, quality services to meet their social, health, educational, and recreational needs and thereby strengthen this multicultural community.

Rafaela Cruz

             When Rafaela Cruz led a trip to Chinatown for the older adults at Sunnyside Center for Active Older Adults, the seniors wouldn’t stop talking about it. They told their friends about the temple under the Brooklyn Bridge, the local candy store with free samples, and the dim sum restaurant where they had lunch — one of the best known in Chinatown. They also told their friends about Rafaela. In the days after the trip, several people approached her and asked that she take them to Chinatown as well.

             Josue, the community center’s director, smiled at her and said, “You’ve created a monster.”

             Sunnyside is a lively, crowded center where new members are common and old members come so regularly that they’ve established a routine. Rafaela compares it to an office; The older adults arrive around the same time every day, take the same seats, and read their newspapers or play bingo with the same group of friends. It’s like family, said Rafaela. She thinks of it as a second home.

             “You don’t feel like you’re old here,” said Rafaela, who at 68 jokes about being one of the “junior seniors” at the center. “Especially Thursdays — forget about that! It’s packed with people dancing.”

             The center hosts dance therapy, zumba, computer classes, mental health workshops, creative writing workshops, and meditation sessions, among other activities. It even has a Masala Banghra workshop and a hairdresser who provides inexpensive haircuts each week. Its trips, however, were a little more disappointing, centering on restaurants, casinos, and other stereotypically “senior” destinations. Recognizing this, Rafaela began leading more active, diverse excursions.

             “I want them to explore New York,” she said. “I want them to really enjoy their lives while they still can.”

             Her first trip began at a Buddhist temple in Chinatown, with a group of seniors who were mostly in their 80s. The group included a woman who suffered from dementia and another woman who wanted to get McDonald’s for lunch. “Not with me!” Rafaela told her. She put together an itinerary that appealed to the entire group.

             Rafaela is also a personable guide with a great sense of adventure. She’s always smiling, and has a constant, contagious enthusiasm. She recognizes how much energy the seniors have, and knows how to excite them. As the guide, she said things like, “Let’s go shop for diamonds!” and, “I’ll take you to a candy place where you can try everything without buying it!”

             As they left the temple, the seniors started hugging Rafaela. Some of them were crying as they thanked her.

             “They didn’t realize they could have this kind of trip,” she said. In the past, seniors would be taken to a location, left there, and picked up at a later time. The seniors didn’t know what to do. They had volunteers who looked after them, but never showed them around or spoke to them as excitedly as Rafaela did.

             Aside from Chinatown, Rafaela has led trips to Wave Hill, the High Line, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Queens County Farm, and the Louis Armstrong House Museum. She’s familiar with most tourist destinations in the city, but also tries to take the seniors to special events. Last year, they went to Winter’s Eve at the Lincoln Center.

             Josue joined that trip and danced with one of the seniors in the street that day. The group loved it, and even though he knew the center didn’t have the budget to support it, suggested, “We should do this every year!” He later asked her, “How did you think of this?”

             Her trick is simple: Rafaela doesn’t think of Sunnyside members as seniors, but as active, curious individuals who happen to be older and thus plans trips for them that any adult would enjoy. As seniors, she said, “You’re just forgotten. Some of these events aren’t geared towards seniors, but I think we have the right to enjoy it, too.”

             Despite her familiarity with New York City, Rafaela didn’t grow up there. She was part of the Foreign Service in the Philippines, and was assigned to serve as Secretary to the General Consulate in New York in 1982. In her early years in the US, she struggled to support her mother and then 8-year-old daughter on her income alone, but still managed to find time to explore her new home.

             She now has two grandsons who inspire her to be active. They get her to run down the stairs with them when she visits, and Taariq, who’s about to start his freshman year at Carleton this fall, was her first yoga teacher.

             “When I was growing up with my grandmothers, I thought they were just there,” she said. She lost one of her grandmothers early in her childhood, and thought of her remaining grandmother as someone who would soon pass away as well. “But children nowadays…it’s so different. They want you to be active. They think you’re going to live forever. Now that I’m a grandmother, I realize that there’s so much.”

             Her peers have inspired her, too. Before she heard about Sunnyside, Rafaela went to other senior centers, including one in Brooklyn that serves many Holocaust survivors. They were in their 90s but astonishingly strong. “We dance with them and we get tired. They don’t get tired,” said Rafaela, laughing.

             A lot of her friends have asked why she spends so much time at senior centers. They don’t understand why she “wants to be old” and spend time with other “old people,” but Rafaela doesn’t think of it that way. She looks at the joyful, dancing seniors at those community centers and thinks, “I want to see myself like that.”

             In recent years, Sunnyside’s members have nearly doubled, from about 150 members to over 300. This brings its own set of challenges. She is only one person, so Rafaela can only take a few dozen people with her at a time. She’s seen seniors crowded in the lobby on the morning of her trips, and she’s seen her own friends at the front desk, disappointed that they didn’t make it onto the list. The center’s operating budget also hasn’t adjusted to accommodate the influx of new members, let alone sponsor trips to places that require a small entrance fee.

             Her daughter eagerly asks her to move in, but Rafaela loves New York, and she loves the camaraderie of the active, enthusiastic peers she has in her community. She’ll be with Sunnyside — leading new excursions, returning to old destinations to give everyone a chance to explore, and sharing the city’s hidden gems with her second family — for as long as she can.