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Social service agency grows despite budget fears

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As Sunnyside Community Services embarks on its most ambitious expansion project since moving to its current home 15 years ago, administrators face withering city funds that could threaten some of the programs patronized by thousands.

But behind the signature red awning that announces the organization's presence on an industrial stretch of 39th Street, none of that seems to dampen the spirits of the hundreds who pass through those doors every day.

On one recent Friday afternoon the Spanish Club, a group of native Spanish speakers who get together regularly in one of the small classrooms, threw a birthday party for a senior center employee who just got out of the hospital, blaring salsa from a stereo and dancing in a way that belies their age.

The bingo game went ahead like clockwork in the main hall, while a small group of men huddled around a table in the corner, their shoulders hunched over a deck of cards.

"They don't see themselves stuck and rutted in their own apartments, their own neighborhood, their own borough - they want to go out," said Diana Cruz, the director of the SCS Senior Center.

Indeed, Sunnyside Community Services has come a long way since it began as a grass-roots senior center run from the basement of Sunnyside Reformed Church by a group of people "who said they wanted a place to congregate," said Judy Zangwill, the executive director.

Although hundreds gather at the senior center every day, it has evolved into an organization that knows few limits and reaches far beyond the cinder block walls of its home. Most of the youth programs are run off site, such as an evening Teen Center at PS 199, college and career guidance, summer camps, after-school activities and a Beacon Program at IS 5.

By far the organization's largest branch is its services for the homebound, which comprises about 90 percent of SCS's annual $37 million budget and provides 52,000 hours of homebound care each week.

"We offer services to people from 5 to over 100," Zangwill said.

And there are plans to do even more. With $1.77 million in city funds set aside to carve a brand-new senior center out of a ground-floor space adjacent to the organization's existing second-story home, SCS administrators hope to break ground in the coming months. Once the senior center moves downstairs, its current space will be remodeled in a second phase of construction that will create an on-site youth center and classrooms to train home health attendants.

The organization's growth over the past two decades has been explosive, to say the least. In a single day its employees serve lunch to almost as many people as they served in the entire year of 1980. The 250 people the organization assisted in that year has climbed to well over 10,000 today, and it shows no sign of slowing down.

But the city's fiscal crisis threatens to curtail that pattern of constant expansion. The organization's administrators have composed a series of contingency budgets, each reflecting a different level of cuts to city funding, to determine how they would cope with whatever comes their way. Meanwhile, the competition for grants from foundations has grown more fierce as non-profits begin relying on private sources to offset the drop in public funds.

"We ride an emotional roller coaster in terms of planning and what's happening to the city economy," said David Whyne, the associate executive director of community services.

While the funding for the construction is said to be secure, the city's budget crisis has cast a long shadow across the services the non-profit provides.

"We're anxious about what's going on in the economy. We've grown so much that we can't keep up," said Sue Fox, the development director. "The anxiety is, how do we sustain as much as we can of what we've got so we don't have to say, 'Sorry'?"

But when the budget crisis finally blows over in a few years, Sunnyside Community Services should be left with a beautiful new home well adapted to a mission that has grown in the decades since its founding.

For the seniors, that means they will still have much to look forward to.

"I don't know what they would do without this place," said Mary Polizzano of Sunnyside as she watched two friends participate in the weekly bingo game, a religion of sorts at the center.

"It keeps my mind occupied. I'm alone - I lost my family. This keeps me alive; this keeps me going," said Anna Damis, 74, of Sunnyside. "They give me an opportunity to keep going, to keep living."

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

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