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Jesse Cosby Center at midlife crossroads

Jesse Cosby Center at midlife crossroads

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WATERLOO | The Jesse Cosby Neighborhood Center is 49 years old this year -- and wants to make sure it's around for its 50th.

The east Waterloo social services center at 1112 Mobile St. pulled itself off the financial ropes at the end of 2014 thanks to donations from the Guernsey Foundation and others.

But it needs additional funding to sustain it through the end of 2015 and into 2016.

"We're kind of in a financial crisis at the moment," said the center's new executive director, Jesse Henderson, great nephew of the agency's namesake founder. The organization had missed a filing deadline for Cedar Valley United Way assistance prior to Henderson's tenure.

"We've been fortunate to get donations from the community and the Guernsey Foundation. And we always our annual fundraiser, which is the Black and White Ball, and it did pretty well this year. However, we're still struggling," Henderson said. "But we're trying to seek other funds."

Jesse Cosby was a musician, entertainer and square dance caller who attracted black and white audiences together after World War II, making a dent in de facto segregation in the Cedar Valley.

His namesake agency, located in what was St. Peter Claver Catholic Church, provides a number of services to people of all ethnic backgrounds throughout Black Hawk County, including senior programs, meals and crisis services.

It operates on a lean budget -- about $100,000 a year according to Henderson -- and has had to reduce staff. It is supported by volunteers, student interns from local post-secondary schools and other agencies. It still serves thousands of people in the Cedar Valley, not restricted to the east-side neighborhood where it is located.

"We're a crisis assistance agency, one of basically three that operate through Black Hawk County, to help homeless, people who need help with their utilities, rent, water," Henderson said.

The agency also has a senior center in a ground-level addition. "We have activities for seniors. We do home-delivered meals. We do congregate meals. We do a host of nutrition, educational, health activities," Henderson said.

Activities include field trips, speakers on a variety of subjects and distribution of farmers market coupons. It also has a community garden and a summertime youth meal program through the schools.

"We're working for a multicultural, multi-generational type atmosphere," Henderson said.

He estimated the agency serves about 2,500 people a year through crisis assistance and serves about 25,000 to 30,000 meals through the year. "With our crisis assistance we serve everybody in Black Hawk County," he said.

The center was loud and bustling with activity one recent noon hour as dozens of seniors congregated to hear a presentation from Waterloo Fire Rescue on fire safety, smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors.

Several seniors there attested to the center's value to them, the neighborhood and the community at large -- and that it is a valuable resource that should not be allowed to slip away.

Anne Phillips, a retired Waterloo school teacher, is one of many seniors who volunteers at the center and enjoys its programs. She's been going to the center about 10 years. She teaches a sewing class and heads up a quilting club that makes lap quilts from donated materials for Cedar Valley Hospice, the ill and shut-ins.

"We have all types of social things, and I think the center really is an outlet to the community for seniors," Phillips said. "Some people, when they get older, the best thing they can have is the socialization. I think socialization is a cure for a lot of ills, especially loneliness.

"I think this center is a very valuable entity in the community," Phillips said. "We really need this center, because there's a lot of lonely people who don't have the time or the resources to function outside of the center. Some of them are sick with different illnesses. This is really an outlet for them. Anyone is welcome here."

Bev Cook, another retired Waterloo teacher and former director of the Lily Furgerson Child Development Center, has helped with a variety of activities at the center and participates in exercise classes. She's there five days a week. "I help them, and they help me," she said. "We help each other."

Center services, such as meal delivery, help seniors stay in their homes. But it also offers a social outlet.

"I'd miss it if it closed. I don't know what I would do if it closed," Cook said. She'd like to see more use of the center, particularly by seniors who feel lonely and isolated.

Aretha White, who turns 95 this month, has been coming to the center since it opened. On this particular day, accompanied by a Senior Companion through Hawkeye Community College, she was enjoying a game of cards with friends.

"We do exercise, sewing, we go on trips," she said -- coordinated with other organizations such as Friendship Village retirement community.

And, she notes, "We have a lot of potlucks" -- perhaps one of the center's best-kept secrets, except to those who participate. Center regulars note the quality of the home cooking is something one needs to experience.

"I call this my job," White joked. "I get up every morning; it's something for me to do. I still drive. I enjoy coming up. It makes my day."

Deacon Kinnie Brown of Antioch Baptist Church, a John Deere retiree, leads an interdenominational Bible study at the center.

"It's really good for senior citizens. There's a lot of informational stuff here. They have good programs, they have a nice library upstairs, exercise."

"We need this center to inform people on what is good, what is bad, caring for our loved ones and caring for each other," Brown said, as well as inform families who have to make a choice for their elderly loved ones on an appropriate living setting.

"People need to come and participate and get informed on what are the options they have in life," Brown said. "As we go day by day, things change and we have to make major changes in our lives."

Beverly Henderson, Jesse Henderson's wife, coordinates the senior programs at the center and says she gets a lot of feedback. "I learn a lot from them," she said.

Upkeep of the center is another issue, Jesse Henderson said. Various repairs are needed.

Asked to identify the center's greatest need, Henderson said, "Financial support." The prospect of closing was "pretty close for a while," he said. "We were fighting hard not to let that happen. We've been getting a lot of community support from the churches, and different donations." The annual fundraiser actually was conducted twice, in the fall and the spring.

With the Guernsey Foundation donation and other support, "that really helped out to see our way clear for another six months," Henderson said. The largest expenses are related to insurance coverage on the building as well as employee health coverage.

"As far as services are concerned, they went down a little bit over three or four months, but we got them back up thanks to the volunteers that came up to help out, volunteers and interns.

"We've got big plans for more fundraisers and developing programs," Henderson said.

Despite its struggles the center is still a vital part of the community, Henderson said, because the need for is services have not diminished.

"We see as many people now as we ever have," Henderson said. Its activities complement and are coordinated with those of other agencies.

"There's a lot of things going in this center the community should know about," retired teacher and center volunteer Phillips said. "I'd hate to see anything happen to the center. This is a very important, valuable resource for the community, and the community around it. It is a gift to the community. It is like a lighthouse that people really depend upon."

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