Members of the Chestnut Hill Center for Enrichment after receiving word several years ago that the center was receiving gifts that would keep it open. From left (seated) Rina Marcolina and Velma Whitlock. Standing (from left) Mary Hayes, CHCE Board President Marilyn Paucker, Lucille Mullings, Board Member Jackie Yorko, Annie Hayes, Executive Director Mary Zell and Rina Fesnak. (Photo by Barbara Sherf)

by Pete Mazzaccaro

The Chestnut Hill Center for Enrichment, a center of activities and classes that has served older adults in Chestnut Hill since 1978, announced this week that it is closing its doors for good on June 30.

The center’s board president Marilyn Paucker told the Local that the board unanimously decided to close a year shy of its 40th anniversary because it cannot stem the tide of sinking membership and funding.

“It’s been slow,” Paucker said. “People who lived in this community their whole lives are leaving for retirement communities like Normandy Farms and Cathedral Village, places that offer lectures, lunches trips – they don’t have to come to us anymore. In ‘78 when we were formed, those things weren’t around then.”

Mary Zell, the center’s executive director since 2003, agrees with Paucker’s assessment.

“People aren’t retiring and sitting around with nothing to do,” she said. “And a lot of people have other avenues and other activities to pursue. The center got more vibrant in the number of offerings and the kinds of things we did. But membership continued to drop over the years.”

When it was founded as the Chestnut Hill Senior Center in 1978 and through the ‘80s, Paucker and Zell said the center enjoyed a robust membership of about 500 local residents. The last 15 years or so have seen that number slowly decline. Today, it stands at 167 members.

In addition to competition from nearby retirement communities, Zell and Paucker said other local senior centers offered similar, including the center’s partner Center on the Hill, which was created by an endowment at Chestnut Hill Presbyterian Church.

Aside from declining membership, both Zell and Paucker acknowledged that funding for the center’s $100,000 annual budget has become more difficult in recent years.

“In terms of funding, $25,000 used to come from the annual Chestnut Hill Community Fund Drive,” Paucker said. “It’s dropped to $15,000. Then last year it was $5,000 and this year it nothing. That was a quarter of our budget.”

And the center faced stiff competition from other funding sources.

“There are as many foundations giving money, but there are a lot more applicants,” Zell said.

One constant bit of support for the center came from Richard Snowden, managing partner of Bowman Properties, which donated the center’s space at 8431 Germantown Ave. rent-free.

Zell said she was saddened to have the center stop under her watch, but promised to put energy into the next two months of programming before it closes for good at the end of June.

“I’ve had a great time,” she said. “I hate seeing it end, but what a great organization. What great people. I’m glad and fortunate to have been there for that.”

Asked if anything might change the minds of the board, Paucker said she didn’t think so.

“It’s time,” she said. “We could do it for another year, but there are fewer and fewer people coming. I just can’t justify it.”

Pete Mazzaccaro can be reached at 215-248-8802 or pete @chestnuthilllocal.com

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