Muticultural Senior Center offers community for elderly immigrants

EVERETT — Dancers swayed and clapped hands as karaoke singers at the front of the room crooned to Korean pop hits from bygone decades.

Around nearby tables, women slapped down playing cards in spirited competition. Men, brows furrowed in thought, played janggi, a board game resembling chess.

Soon, this roomful of senior citizens would chow down on bulgogi, a spicy Korean beef dish. It was served on this late November afternoon with kimchi, eggplant and steaming purple rice.

A similar scene unfolds twice weekly during Korean days at the Multicultural Senior Center in south Everett. At other times, the room echoes with voices speaking Vietnamese, Filipino, Mandarin or Spanish.

“I just accidently walked in about three years or so ago,” said Kang Ja Royle, a regular with the group who often helps interpret for people uncomfortable speaking English. “I found it a really wonderful place for people to come together and get all the support we need as we age. It really enriches our lives.”

The Multicultural Senior Center opened in 2008 at an office suite on Airport Road. Before that, services catering to elderly immigrants were scattered among various area churches as different groups of people came together to meet emerging community needs.

“It went from one group to two groups to five groups,” said Bob Quirk, social services director for Senior Services of Snohomish County, which runs the center.

Since its inception, the center has become a hugely popular part of Senior Services, despite representing only a small fraction of the nonprofit’s $14 million in annual operation costs. Most of the budget goes toward transit and nutrition programs. Key funding for the center comes from Snohomish County government and United Way of Snohomish County.

The multicultural programs typically attract up to 90 people on any given day. Anybody age 60 or older is welcome, regardless of cultural background.

An elder in the Korean group, Myung Sub Choi, of Lynnwood, said he comes mainly to seek help from social workers. Choi, who spoke through Royle, who was interpreting, said he also looks forward to socializing and karaoke. The center’s staff appreciates the 75-year-old former bank employee’s dedication as a volunteer who arrives punctually to help set up equipment.

“He’s here every morning, 5 minutes after I get here,” said Connie Hallgarth, the center’s coordinator.

“These groups operate on a lot of good volunteers who do a lot of good work for everybody’s benefit,” Hallgarth said.

People come to chat in their native language or to play bingo. They celebrate holidays foreign to most Americans, such as the Lunar New Year and Parents Day (a combination of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day).

They also attend to serious health and housing needs.

Nurses and other health professionals visit the center quarterly as part of the center’s partnership with Community Health Center of Snohomish County.

In November, bilingual social workers wrapped up a six-week class on managing chronic diseases, including back pain and high blood pressure.

Since finding the Multicultural Senior Center, Royle has become a fixture at the Korean group.

The Silver Lake resident, who goes by the nickname “KJ,” arrived in the U.S. as a teen more than 50 years ago. Her mother married an American G.I. who adopted her and two sisters. She now uses her fluency in English and Korean to connect friends in both cultures.

Sometimes, she helps people decipher whether an important-looking letter is junk mail or a potential scam. She volunteers to drive people to doctor’s appointments.

“Every group has a KJ who does those things and helps plan activities,” Quirk said.

No other senior center in Snohomish County offers any comparable outreach to immigrant groups, though the one in Monroe has made numerous attempts to reach Hispanic seniors. Others, including the Ken Baxter Senior Center in Marysville, print bilingual fliers in English and Spanish.

Senior Services of Snohomish County also runs a program for Russian- and Ukrainian-speaking seniors at Everett Housing Authority’s Bakerview Apartments.

Hallgarth said family members often tell her about seniors who look forward all week to the center’s get-togethers. They’re not the only ones enriched by the regular gatherings; so is Hallgarth.

“The extreme respect these people have for their elders is something we can only aspire to,” she said.

“I’ve observed that in all of the groups.”

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

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