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Sunnyside Senior Center squeezed for space

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At peak hours, finding an open seat in the lunch room of the Sunnyside Senior Center is nearly impossible.

The non-profit center at 43-31 39th St. is the only senior activity center of its kind in the neighborhood, which is the reason Executive Director Judy Zangwill has made an aggressive push to expand the space at its current location.

"We are really squeezed," said Zangwill, who has been at the helm of SCS since 1990. "We're a thriving, growing senior center but we've reconfigured as best we can."

SCS started in 1974 in a tiny church basement on 48th Street and Skillman Avenue. More than 25 years later, it has grown to become the largest community-based social service agency in western Queens. It offers a wide range of activities including exercise, meditation, ballroom dancing, Bingo, creative writing, billiards and cards, arts and crafts and discussion groups. But because the number of seniors in Sunnyside is projected to increase by nearly 2,800 in the next five or seven years, Zangwill fears some of the programs will have to be cut.

"We're really dying here," she said.

At a Community Board 2 meeting last month, Zangwill pleaded with the community to act, citing the growing population and she has already asked the New York City Department for the Aging for help in acquiring the first floor of the building. The space is occupied by an auto body shop whose lease will expire in July.

She said access to the first floor will give seniors, who may already have trouble climbing the stairs, a much a easier chance to evacuate in case of emergency, especially those in walkers or wheelchairs who cannot use the stairs.

The center, which has occupied the 18,000 square feet of space on the second floor since 1987, is facing a renovation cost of about $1.7 million. Last year architects and engineers from the Edelman Partnership evaluated the center and concluded that it needs 27,000 square feet in which to operate. The architect also stressed changes that would be necessary if the first floor space is acquired, including window replacement, a new kitchen, central air conditioning, some plumbing and electrical work, and a new facade facing the street.

Woodside resident Grace Montes is chairwoman of the advisory council at SCS. She said expansion of the center would benefit the entire community. She has been coming to the Sunnyside Senior Center for the past 10 years and said the center is a great social outlet for many seniors who otherwise might not have the opportunity to meet new friends.

"I've met some very nice people here," she said. It's just ideal for seniors. Many have lost there wives and husbands and we can help each other. It's a wonderful opportunity for seniors. But there's so much more we can do if we had the space."

Sunnyside resident Martha Barjacoba, who has been going to SCS for eight years, said cutting programs would only hurt seniors who often rely on community services to keep them active.

"We need programs to make it more interesting to the people we have," she said. "People like coming here but it's small and we need more space."

"We definitely need to expand," said Sunnyside resident Lillian Stanley. "We have everything here, but it's a little bit too small. This is really a community service and there are quite a lot of things going on here."

Zangwill said she would not have as much of a problem looking for space in other parts of Queens but found it was far more economically feasible to remain in the current Sunnyside location.

"If we went to Long Island City, we would have our pick of space," Zangwill said. "But we're really committed to staying in Sunnyside."

For more information on how to get involved call the Sunnyside Senior Center at 784-7266.

Reach reporter Peter Sorkin by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 155.

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