Bixby Knolls’ Expo center may see more senior programming if budget plan is approved next month

Beatriz Proano was in a swimming class when a woman told her about new senior programming being offered at the Expo Arts Center in Bixby Knolls.

A longtime Long Beach resident, Proano currently lives alone but now gets to socialize with others and take part in various activities offered at the center.

She’s even part of a group of women who regularly play board games together. They call themselves “Grupo de Muchachas de Bixby Knolls,” Spanish for “The Girls of Bixby Knolls.”

“I was very lonely and here I found friends,” Proano said. “It changed my life.”

From left to right: Beatriz Proano, Teresa Palacios, Amber Montano and Martha Alvarez meet weekly to play board games at the Expo Arts Center. The seniors call themselves “The Girls of Bixby Knolls.” Photo by Stephanie Rivera.

On Tuesday, the Senior Citizen Advisory Commission unanimously approved a plan that will allow more funding for programming at the Expo and allow the Parks, Recreation and Marine department to take over.

It now needs to be cleared by the Budget Oversight Committee next month to be implemented.

A total of $40,000 will go toward coordinating and programming at the Expo out of $100,000 the city council appropriated last year for seniors.

The Expo is currently run on a shoestring budget that relies on donations from the Port of Long Beach and Long Beach Airport as well as whatever amount seniors can raise. The nonprofit Women in Action Reaching Out provides free meals.

“These folks are nickel and diming it, paying 20 cents for coffee and collecting cans and bottles to support this programming,” said 8th District Councilman Al Austin.

His council office currently manages the activities—and is the only office that currently organizes such programming for seniors. Multiple hours of staff time go into booking the tai chi and yoga instructors, setting up the calendars and coordinating the monthly senior activities committee.

The office also covers utility and building supply costs that total over $2,000 annually.

Austin said they have been also able to receive $2,000 annually from the port and a one-time $2,000 amount from the airport. That financial support is expected to continue.

So far, programming takes place Tuesdays and Thursdays but both seniors and officials hope to add a third day.

Seniors participate in tai chi exercises offered at the Expo Arts Center Tuesday, March 12, 2019. Photo by Sarahi Apaez.

“They are self-governing in a lot of ways,” Austin said, noting the amount of volunteer work put in by some of the seniors themselves. “My ask from city staff is that we need to get Parks and Recreation involved in senior activities here. Everywhere else they’re run by Parks and Recreation—this is a city building—it just makes sense to bring in staff, recreation assistance to help with the programming.”

Barbara Shoag, one of the volunteers and the chair of the center’s advisory committee, said the change will also guarantee that the much-needed programming continues despite the eventual turnover in council seats.

“It has really been a hub for fellowship, for friendship,” said Shoag, who estimates between 35 to 50 seniors show up daily.

Shoag, who lives in the Virginia Country Club neighborhood, said she has met people from all over the world. “It’s a true representation of the diversity of Long Beach.”

For Carmelitos Senior Complex resident Barbara Gower, the programming motivates her to get out of the house.

“A lot of times I don’t really feel well,” Gower said. “I’m old, my legs hurt and everything else, but it is a great program.”

Austin said the activities have also allowed for the building of a community.

“It is really a blended community,” Austin said. “Before, there were lines of demarcation here in this district. People didn’t go north of Del Amo, didn’t go south of Del Amo, didn’t really cross paths so now they do.”

Seniors participate in tai chi exercises offered at the Expo Arts Center Tuesday, March 12, 2019. Photo by Sarahi Apaez.

Senior programming at the Expo was begun about three and a half years ago by Austin after he realized there was no senior center serving the area.

Austin said that while his office was originally looking at repurposing a site as a senior center the consensus from the senior community was to have activities at the Expo, which also serves as his district office.

The six official senior centers located in the city are run by the Parks, Recreation and Marine department.

They are at the farthest edges of the city, including at Houghton Park in the north, at Silverado Park to the west and El Dorado Park to the east. Three other centers are located south of Pacific Coast Highway.

About 25 percent of the city’s population are adults ages 50 or older with 9.3 percent being 65 years or older, according to a 2016 city report.

North Long Beach has the highest number of older adults within the city, according to the city.

The Budget Oversight Committee is scheduled to meet April 9. If the plan is approved, Parks Director Gerard Mouet said the funding will start right away and be spread out over a 12-month period. His hope is to make the funding sustainable.

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Stephanie Rivera covers immigration and the north, west and central parts of Long Beach. Reach her at [email protected] or on Twitter at @StephRivera88.