Southborough Senior Center finds revived sense of community in social distanced drive-through events

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By Dakota Antelman, Contributing Writer

A photo of a plate at a recent BBQ drive through event shows the food seniors get when visiting the Southborough Senior Center’s events these days.

Southborough – It’s been a strange year. So why not celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in July?

The Southborough Senior Center did just that last month with an innovative drive-through cookout. An overwhelming success, that event has since offered a template for a now packed summer schedule of socially distanced community events.

“We want to keep people busy,” Senior Center director Pam LeFrancois said. “We want to get people safely out of the house.”

Originally scheduled around the actual St. Patrick’s Day holiday, in March, the Southborough Senior Center’s original cookout plans were some of the first casualties of a season largely lost to COVID-19 lockdown.

A volunteer cook tends to burgers on an open grill.

Months later, though, with a better grasp on social distancing and other safety protocols, LeFrancois and her staff were excited to devise a plan to revive their beloved event.

“Once a year, everybody likes their corned beef and cabbage,” she said.

What followed was, indeed, the first in a string of several drive-through events that the senior Center has now placed at the core of its operations.

Whether for St. Patrick’s Day, or more recently, a BBQ lunch, Seniors line up in their cars, then drive to tents set up by the side door of the Senior Center. A smiling crowd of volunteers and staff then hand them crafts, food and pre-prepared goodie bags making jokes, or just waving as visitors drive away.

A senior citizen waves to volunteers at the Southborough Senior Center.

The experiences are Board of Health approved, funded in part by the Friends of the Council on Aging, and can be made completely contactless depending on the needs of specific seniors.

Though the foods and/or crafts rotate between events, LeFrancois says the experience has been the same no matter the location this summer.

“People are smiling, they’re happy,” she said. “They’re excited to see us. They just can’t wait to talk to you even if it’s just for a minute. It’s a great connection.”

Dating back to the spring, before these drive through events, that idea of connection had already been the focus of the Senior Center’s operations.

A volunteer hands food through the window of a senior’s car during a recent event at the Southborough Senior Center.

Like many other centers in the region, Southborough staff conducted a phone banking blitz, calling the roughly 500 residents that had registered with the Senior Center.

“They’re not going to necessarily go to the website to get the information so our best way to reach people was over the phone,” LeFrancois said.

From grocery needs, to necessary prescription pickups, to desires for general socialization, Senior Center staff wanted to gauge the challenges facing their clientele at the outset of the pandemic.

As they wrapped that effort, staff then set out to refund seniors for the previously planned trips that the virus scrapped. Only when that was complete, LeFrancois explained, could the Senior Center move forward under this new normal.

A volunteer hands food through the window of a senior’s car during a recent event at the Southborough Senior Center.

“First we were in shock,” she said. “Then we did that big outreach. Then we did the refunds. And then we started to rebuild.”

LeFrancois says she’s proud of what her staff have accomplished. She’s also looking to the future.

She wants to host a Halloween drive-through with multiple stations through the Senior Center parking lot. She’s also eyeing cupcake decorating, and casino themed programs as well.

Beyond those efforts, she plans on also expanding offerings to homebound seniors, hoping to bring some of this drive through programming to their doorsteps in the coming weeks and months.

“We really try to do different things,” she said. “We want to get a little out of the box….it took a little bit of time to get it organized but, now, we’re in the groove.”

For the latest information on Southborough Senior Center programming, visit www.southboroughseniors.com.

(Photos/Dakota Antelman)