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The senior center’s cry for help

In some ways, La Jolla’s Florence Riford Adult Center is stronger than ever, with a membership that has more than quadrupled in the last year. But for all the new activity happening within the center’s walls, its funding has been unable to keep pace with the costs of operation.

Center director Lynda Hunt said the center is operating at a loss of about $20,000 per year and may have to close its doors within the next two years unless new sources of funding can be found. The center is owned by the city but receives no government funding, instead relying mainly on an endowment established by Florence Riford more than 25 years ago and on membership dues. The center’s membership has increased from about 80 a year ago to more than 400.

“We’ve had quite a dramatic increase, it’s not like we’re sitting back waiting for the money to roll in,” Hunt said.

But membership dues do little to cover the costs of operating a center that provides seniors with transportation, food, social and educational activities and fitness programs. Instead, the center leans on the Riford endowment, which was an incredibly generous gift when it was given, but these days doesn’t go quite as far as it used to.

“The center has been open since 1972 and the endowment has just been depleted over that time,” Hunt said. “The funds are invested, and we know what the stock market does. You can’t count on it. Nobody anticipated the kind of inflation we’ve seen, and with the economy being what it is, it’s been a drain.”

The endowment returns less than $100,000 to the center per year, Hunt said, more than $20,000 less than what she needs to run it.

“We’ve got about two years left before we might have to close our doors,” she said.

If that were to happen, the Riford Center would leave a significant void. It is the only senior center serving La Jolla and Pacific Beach and offers its members a myriad of services. Members can purchase home-delivered meals at half price and catch rides from a car service hired by the center that loops through La Jolla and Pacific Beach four days a week.

The center hosts yoga classes three times per week and Thai Chi classes once every week. Aerobics classes are held every morning. The duplicate bridge games held every Tuesday regularly draw around 75 people, Hunt said. The center hosts safe driving classes, drawing classes and arts lectures sponsored by the Athenaeum Music and Arts Library.

The center provides members with free legal advice, and there is a tax preparer working on site every year at tax time.

Members can check out video tapes and DVDs for free, and the center has a room full of books, both in large print and regular, that members can take at any time. There’s a White Elephant Sale room where members donate items for others to buy.

“They can buy things for whatever they wish, whatever price they want to pay,” Hunt said.

The Riford Center has received some community help recently to improve its facility. The La Jolla Kiwanis Club paid for the paint to spruce up the center’s interior, and City Council President Scott Peters’ “Team Peters” provided labor along with help from the United States Marines and other volunteers.

A La Jolla Eagle Scout recently redid the building’s front facade and the La Jolla Rotary Club has pledged funds to pay for new carpet. The Rotary Club also paid recently for an air conditioning system, which the center previously lacked.

But Hunt said for all her success finding support for facility improvements, she has come up completely dry in her attempt to find donors to help with operating costs.

“There is nobody willing to participate with the operating expenses,” she said. “I’m trying to tap into the major donors who give to the arts, education. Children, even animals, seem to come before seniors when it comes to philanthropy.”

Hunt believes some people might have the wrong idea about the center and its members because it is located in La Jolla.

“I’ll be talking to potential donors and as soon as I mention we’re located in La Jolla, it’s like people say, ‘Oh, they’re already rich enough,’ ” Hunt said. “It’s a hard sell.”

Hunt said the perception is inaccurate. Most of the center’s members live on fixed incomes.

“Starbucks donates pastries to us, and they’re always getting snapped up,” she said. “Some people will wrap things up and take them home. It’s very apparent that’s their meal for the day.”

Hunt said some of her members live in million-dollar homes but scrape by in terms of living expenses and that, for most, selling their homes would be inconceivable.

“They’re afraid of losing their nest egg,” she said. “They grew up in the Depression. To them, being without a home is worse than death. It’s hard to overcome that reluctance.”

For seniors who do make the choice to give up their homes, the Riford Center has a wealth of information on places for them to go. Hunt provides literature on senior-living communities, but only after speaking in person with a representative from the facility.

“You just get a gut feeling about someone,” she said.

These services are necessary and the Riford Center is the only place in La Jolla that provides them, Hunt said. She hopes to ensure that the center can continue providing them by trying to secure corporate donations to keep the center’s doors open.

“I need a pharmaceutical company or someone who wishes goodwill toward seniors to step forward,” she said.

Hunt also hopes to find more local support in the coming years.

“I had a gala benefit last year, and only one member of the La Jolla Town Council attended,” she said. “It was held in Point Loma, and I guess the people from La Jolla didn’t want to travel. The community didn’t support it. That hurt, because we’ll all be in this position, we’re all going to need help someday.”