ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — She pulls two plump red tomatoes from a sack in her shopping cart as if she were handling two precious rubies.
For Shirley Stevens, fresh produce is nearly that.
“Tomatoes are my favorite,” she coos.
Stevens, who’s a few weeks shy of turning 81, shows me some of the other grocery swag she’s about to cart away. A whole chicken. A chunk of ham. Granola. Pudding. Bottled water. Canned goods. Dog food. Toilet paper. But it’s the fruits and vegetables, which besides tomatoes include a generous sack of oranges and a bunch of bananas, that merit my extra attention, she says.
“You need to underline the fresh produce,” she says. “That’s the best part of this. That’s the thing some of us might not be able to afford on our own.”
That’s something you hear as the seniors wheel around their carts selecting from among the grocery items – everything from rib-eyes to chewing gum – provided for free by Silver Horizons, a nonprofit organization that for 35 years has served low-income seniors in the Albuquerque area with food and help with utility bills, home repairs and improvements.
“It’s a wonderful program,” says Dixie Kessler, 74. “These folks donate their time, efforts and all this to get us what we need. If not for this, there would be serious hardships.”
Both Kessler and Stevens were among the 75 or so residents of the AHEPA apartment complex on Albuquerque’s West Side who showed up Monday for the monthly Silver Horizons pantry, a sort of farmers market where the seniors choose the items they need to supplement their limited food budgets. This pantry sets up in one of the day rooms of the complex, making it easy for residents to walk to.
“Silver Horizons bridges that gap for our seniors with access to nutrition,” says Mary Shortell, service coordinator for AHEPA, short for American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association’s National Housing Corp., which provides affordable housing for low-income seniors and disabled people. “Every resident here qualifies as low-income. Many have mobility issues, poor vision, arthritic hands. With all those deficits, you can see how a program like Silver Horizons is so valuable.”
Pantries are held in senior centers and apartment locations across Albuquerque, Valencia County and Rio Rancho, with plans to open a monthly pantry in Bernalillo by September and Santa Fe in the near future.
Monday’s pantry at AHEPA was the third one of the day for Ron Hidalgo, executive director and Silver Horizons’ only staff person. The folks helping out at the pantries are volunteers, often employees of Walgreens, a big supporter.
Pantry items come from food drives and donations from community partners, which brings down the cost for providing food to some 1,400 seniors each month to about $2 a senior, Hidalgo said.
“We actually buy very little of the food we distribute,” he said.
In one year, Hidalgo says, the program provided food to more than 10,720 folks ages 62 and older who live on a fixed income that averages about $7,500 annually. It also assisted more than 370 senior households with utility bills. And in conjunction with the city of Albuquerque’s Department of Senior Affairs, it purchased enough materials to make more than 650 home repairs and 300 home safety modifications such as access ramps and grab bars for low-income residents ages 55 and older.
Today, it remains the only nonprofit organization in the state focused solely on addressing senior poverty.
All this good work, and few have heard of Silver Horizons.
“Nine out of 10 people don’t know who we are,” Hidalgo said.
He’s trying to change that.
“Thirty-four years ago, this was a very small mom-and-pop grass-roots project, serving about 70 seniors monthly – a drop in the bucket,” Hidalgo said. “Yet, thousands of New Mexico seniors have to rely on food banks. Many of these seniors have no safety net, no pension, savings. Just a Social Security check and maybe food stamps, which don’t go nearly far enough.”
About a year ago, Hidalgo was hired, and a website and Facebook presence were stepped up. The number of seniors served jumped to about 1,400, he said.
This August, Silver Horizons will host a 35th anniversary gala with a “Downton Abbey” theme aimed at not only raising funds but raising awareness of the program and, it is hoped, expanding the program’s reach to more seniors.
Shirley Stevens, our tomato fan, likes that idea. In her younger days, she took care of other people’s children in a day-care center she ran in her home. It was a business that provided no pension, retirement fund or nest egg. Because of Silver Horizons, she now has people to take care of her.
“It’s just a terrific thing they do for us,” she says. “And you just can’t beat a fresh tomato.”
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.