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Elder community flourishes in Floral Park

"I just knew he was an excellent worker," she said about her first time meeting the boy, 14-year-old Moses Masaazi of Bellerose. Moses, who will be a freshman at Thomas Edison High School in Jamaica in the fall, said he assisted her because, "I like to help people."

The pair were brought together through the efforts of the Naturally Occurring Retirement Community Without Walls, or NORC WOW, a program designed to deliver services to seniors so they can continue to live in their own houses and not have to move away to group homes.

"As people get older, the things they found easy to do get harder," said Yvonne Gelbord, who runs the program with Darlene Dindial. "They want to stay in the neighborhood, they've been here 50 years, but they consider leaving."

To help them stay, NORC WOW offers nursing and social work visits, volunteer and recreational opportunities, and assistance with home repairs and maintenance, among other services. The assistance allows seniors to remain independent and not feel like they are burdening their friends and family.

"I didn't want to rely on anybody," said Manson, who has lived in Floral Park for more than 30 years.

The idea of establishing naturally occurring retirement communities began 15 years ago in Manhattan, when managers of apartment buildings helped volunteers build a sense of community among seniors and provide them with services. There are now 29 NORCs in the New York City metropolitan area.

When volunteers decided to set up a similar community in Queens a year and a half ago, they looked all over the borough for a high concentration of seniors, eventually settling on Floral Park in an area bounded by Hillside Avenue in the south, the Cross Island Parkway in the west, Union Turnpike in the north and Langdale Street in the east.

But unlike the 29 other NORCs, the one in Floral Park proved unique since it was composed mainly of one- or two-family homes instead of apartments, making it more difficult to establish and leading to the "without walls" tag.

"The community organization it requires is much more complex," Dindial said, explaining that it was a greater challenge to publicize the program and engage the residents.

Established with grants from the Fan Fox & Leslie R. Samuels Foundation and the Stella and Charles Guttman Foundation, the Floral Park initiative has the potential to serve 800 to 900 seniors, Dindial and Gelbord said. To reach residents, they have enlisted the help of churches and community leaders and sent out mass mailings.

The program also relies on help from more than 40 older residents in the community.

"The opportunity to volunteer is important to seniors, to have a purpose and to feel worthwhile," Gelbord said.

And the program has helped bring disparate elements of the area together, too, as it is composed both of a large segment of older residents and young families, recently arrived and largely from minority groups.

"They're younger and the older families think they have nothing in common," Gelbord said.

"It's a nice way of facilitating a sense of community," Dindial said.

While no official statistics are kept to gauge the project's progress, Dindial and Gelbord will open an office within the next month at 83-51 268th St. and hire two additional staff members, they said.

With the foundation grants, NORC WOW has enough funds for another year and a half, after which it hopes to secure city and state funding. Several area elected officials have expressed interest, and many are waiting to see how NORC can work outside of an apartment complex.

"This is a real model," Gelbord said. "Communities all over the country are watching us."

Reach reporter Michael Morton by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or by calling 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

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