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Mar-28-2013 13:42printcomments

Rochdale and Beyond: My Immersion in Social Work

How I began my love affair with senior citizens some forty years ago.

Social work

(SALEM) - How did a professional editor get to enter a second career and turn to social work? It's an ideal question to ask, and to answer, during March which happens to be National Social Work Month. Here I shall unfold my personal story for all to explore.

Journalism involves interviews, and so does Social Work. There is ample opportunity to maintain case records if you do casework. Every client contact requires a written summary. The background of a reporter/feature writer equips you with these needed skills. First, you observe and absorb the happenings. Then you conceptualize those connections. Finally, you commit all this to paper, or in the current era, to the computer screen.

Making the jump from observation to documentation is the template of follow-through.

However, my MSW major was in Community Organization. I had been influenced greatly by the Age of LBJ and the well-heralded War on Poverty. My passion was to grant empowerment rights to the people themselves. Yes, I wanted to give them to tools to develop their very own voice. And because of the fact that I was raised in part by my paternal grandparents in Brooklyn, I was poised to want to work with the elderly.

Fate found me my first social work job in January 1975. The location was Rochdale Village, a huge co-op housing project of 20,000 residents located near Kennedy Airport in Queens. It was a brand-new senior center in a racially mixed community that included both East Europeans and Blacks, mostly middle-class folks. The surrounding Jamaica communities were generally more lower-income with considerable unemployment and crime. Muggings were considered a constant danger.

All of this paved the way for gearing up my Community Organization background. However, there was internal dissent from Rochdalers when I arrived on the scene from Day #1. There existed some three existing senior groups, each with their own following. They were suspicious of the new arrivals becoming their rival. They feared our new senior center could undercut their dwindling membership yet further. We were seen as the adversaries, anything but welcome.

This was the initial challenge. It fell on my shoulders to seek a fair solution. First I needed to research what these existing clubs did and when they did it. It was our goal not to overlap. We learned which group played cards or bingo or had luncheons and noticed a rotation schedule. Thus we created our own set of events on different days and times. We introduced needlecraft and exercise sessions as well as monthly movies as a supplement, not a competitive activity. To sweeten the pot a bit, with their consent, we developed a monthly calendar to embrace all the clubs. They liked that added publicity.

Our main focus, however, was on counseling and advocacy. We then had two persons doing counseling, I being the main person. In short order I learned that older people do not grant "trust" automatically to younger people even those having degrees. That brand of trust had to be diligently earned.

By introducing group movies and hands-on crafts classes, we gained that credibility and trust. The lesson imprinted lifelong: go slowly to introduce yourself, and start with the easy stuff, such as activities. Once the bonding begins to form, only then can you move into heavier areas like sharing problems. We also achieved credibility by launching a monthly Senior Forum, hosted at the local branch library. Democracy was the byword. Thus we had the seniors elect their own moderator for these forums, all of which added to our commitment to empowerment. We invited health experts and public officials as our guest speakers, and encouraged an audience Q and A session. This gave our seniors a voice.

Along the way, we successfully lobbied as a group for a new city council law to include senior citizens living in co-ops like Rochdale under the eligibility rules for low-income reduced rentals. Having this extra money saved simply acted to demonstrate that we had become an effective group.

In the decade I spent building this senior program from scratch, responding to crime was a priority.

We brought in the police prime prevention officers for periodic talks to educate our seniors. We also did some training on observation skills helpful to give testimony if the assailant was caught, and how the assault victim could obtain victims assistance compensation in the aftermath.

Finally, my writing background was recycled as I wrote up several grants proposals to start new programs.

One involved creating an inter-generational veggie garden area from what had been a former trash dump. We called that Operation Green Thumb and we engaged the scouts as partners for each plot. A second grant created a special journal of immigrant stories from the mouths of our foreign-born seniors. In this effort, we hired college-level writers to conduct the interviews and get to know our seniors personally.

We got our congressman to do the preface, and called this "The Ellis Island Digest". To the best of our knowledge, no other senior center in the country had ever duplicated this uplifting effort.

And that is how I began my love affair with senior citizens some forty years ago. The proverbial wheel of fortune has now turned, and I write this article as an elder consumer myself, still enjoying life and wanting to give back to others. May that legacy serve as an inspiration.


NOTE: B. Lee Coyne first emerged as a Caucasian cub reporter for the Black weekly NY Voice and was assigned to cover numerous civil rights struggles. It has left its indelible mark on his mindset. He can be contacted at:

B. Lee Coyne, a NYC native, blends three careers: Journalist, Counselor, Educator. His writings have appeared in newspapers and magazines on the East and West Coasts and the Southwest. He loves the art of the interview and has covered such persons as Dr. King's 1963 "Dream" speech and Sen. William

Proxmire as an advocate for the environment. A global traveller to some 30 countries aboard, he speaks Spanish semi-fluently and very rudimentary Russian, Tagalog, German, Arabic and Hebrew.

Lee's legacy here in Salem includes launching the Salem Peace Mosaic at the YMCA and doing a radio talk show for KMUZ/88.5 FM. It airs Mondays and highlights lives of proactive, productive senior citizens. He invites you to contact him at:


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Sean Flynn was a photojournalist in Vietnam, taken captive in 1970 in Cambodia and never seen again.