Key Takeaways

  • The Vida Senior Centers (VIDA) mission: to maintain and improve the quality of life for Hispanic/Latino seniors living in the greater Washington, D.C., metropolitan area by effectively providing culturally and linguistically appropriate services in a “home away from home” setting.

  • Founded as a social service and social justice organization for the entire Latino/Hispanic community, VIDA began in 1972 to focus on providing services specifically to older adults.

  • Two locations give VIDA a broader impact, but more funding and expanded space would give them the ability to serve many more local Hispanic/Latino older adults in ways that speak directly to their community’s needs. 

Late on a Friday evening in the Northwest area of Washington, D.C., a large group of older adults gathered at the Vida Senior Centers for a special event—a Tertulia. This “informal meeting of people to talk about current affairs, etc.”1 is also known as a type of Spanish literary salon.2 The event, part of a series that was funded through an AARP Community Challenge Grant, featured a presentation and interactive discussion about the impact of COVID on older adults’ mental health and was followed by music and delicious food.

As usual, the event was kicked off with the entire group standing and being led in singing the Vida Senior Centers Anthem. Written 40 years ago, the anthem is emblematic of the pride and sense of belonging and community that this organization, a home away from home for thousands of Latino seniors, creates.

What is the history of Vida Senior Centers?

Vida Senior Centers (VIDA), the first Hispanic nonprofit organization in the capital city, was founded in November of 1969 under the name of EOFULA (Educational Organization for United Latin Americans) as a social service and social justice organization for the entire Latino/Hispanic community. Older adults were the biggest group of participants, and, in 1972, EOFULA decided to focus on providing services specifically to Hispanic seniors.

Thirty years later, in 2002, they acquired space on Calvert Street in Washington, D.C., as their headquarters and renamed the organization Vida Senior Centers in 2009. They are still operating at that site, a three-story building, with offices and small community rooms. In 2011 they celebrated the construction of a 5-story multi-use building on Missouri Avenue with 36 one-bedroom apartments, a community center and a commercial kitchen that provides a range of programs, services, activities, and meals.

VIDA’s core values: 

  • Respect
  • Advocacy
  • Impact and integrity
  • Community
  • Empathy
  • Service

Who comes to Vida Senior Centers?

Most participants at VIDA are Hispanic older adults who, according to the senior center’s website “have worked hard all their lives, but getting older find themselves with limited access to resources and in many cases alone, in a country that is culturally and linguistically foreign to them.” The majority of the people who come to VIDA have incomes that fall below 200% of federal poverty guidelines. Supporting their economic security—through benefits access, food security, information and education—is a priority.

A key focus is the health of older immigrants.

Despite their swelling numbers and America’s near-national obsession with retirement, older immigrants are often ignored,” VIDA’s website states. “They seem almost invisible.” 

VIDA works to change that, serving more than 700 people a year. While participants might attend both locations, they are more likely to visit the center closest to them, with 38% coming to the Missouri Avenue location and 41% to the Calvert Street location. VIDA has embraced technology, and the two centers are linked with hybrid classes allowing participants to tune in from the other location or from home and in their chosen language. For non-English language learners, this can be a real window of opportunity easing life’s challenges and decreasing instances of social isolation.

What happens at Vida Senior Centers?

Many of the participants at VIDA are first generation immigrants who worked hard but lack retirement income and have barriers to accessing support. The VIDA social services counselors, case manager, and social worker help with affordable housing, food supplementation, transportation, and other qualifying programs. VIDA provides access to legal help, especially around the immigration process, including weekly “Citizenship Classes” in preparation to take the U.S. citizenship exam.

In addition to their work on economic security, VIDA has a strong focus on health and well-being. They monitor health through their Health Promotion and Wellness Program that is led by a geriatrician and other medical professionals. Health Promotion Counselors provide routine screenings, monitoring, education, and referrals, and the social services staff help ensure meaningful access to health care. Additionally, the centers provide group health education, fitness classes (Zumba with Lola and Yoga with Mayelin, for example) and evidence-based programs.

VIDA is well-respected and trusted by the people they serve. This has been especially evident, and critical, during the COVID pandemic. VIDA continues to be instrumental in ensuring that older adults have the information and support they need and that they have access to vaccines. The centers are still engaged in the vaccine effort, hosting clinics and supporting access to community clinics.

In addition to physical health, VIDA provides programs and services, including counseling, to address mental and behavioral health. They also have a focus on nutrition and food services. The centers provide meals, food pantry boxes, and assistance with food benefits. They also provide nutrition counseling and culturally sensitive education.

And, like all senior centers, VIDA offers ample opportunities for recreation, lifelong learning, skill-building, and socialization. VIDA is a fun and lively place. Activities include:

  • English as a Foreign Language
  • Literacy in Spanish
  • Computer and technology classes
  • Embroidery
  • Knitting
  • Jewelry making
  • Music classes
  • Art and crafts
  • Painting
  • Dance/Zumba 
  • Birthday celebrations
  • Bingo
  • Friday Fiesta

There are opportunities for participants to volunteer both in the centers and in the community. And, of course, VIDA hosts special events like the Tertulia.

Challenges for Vida Senior Centers 

VIDA has been incredibly successful in meeting their mission for more than 50 years. They are only limited by funding and space. As a nonprofit, Vida has two main funding sources that cover operational costs but do not provide for programming. For that they rely on partnerships, fundraising, and grant opportunities like AARP’s Challenge Grant. And, while they have two locations, both provide limited space for programs. They are bursting at the seams.  

VIDA estimates that they can serve 1% of the area’s 70,000 Hispanic older adults within their walls and that, with expanded space, they could expand the opportunity for a more independent, happier, and healthier life for far more people.  

VIDA understands the communities it serves by providing equitable solutions to the specific challenges facing Hispanic/Latino older adults in the DC-metro area. However, no one site can do this alone, and it's up to the surrounding network of senior centers to extend their hands and work collaboratively to learn more from VIDA around issues of equity and inclusion—celebrating diversity by providing a seat at the table of program creation and decision making for all.  

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If your center has engaged in a recent study or assessment, we’d love to hear about it. And if you haven't already, we'd encourage you to join the National Institute of Senior Centers (NISC). Free to all senior centers (and their personnel), NISC supports senior centers with best practices and innovations in programming, as well as networking and training opportunities. Ask for help, leverage NISC resources, or share your successes like the Arlington Heights Senior Center (AHSC). Find out how you can become a NISC Affiliate today.

Photo courtesy Vida Senior Centers

Sources

1. Wikipedia. Tertulia. Found on the internet at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tertulia

2. Britannica. tertulia Spanish society. Found on the internet at https://www.britannica.com/art/tertulia