Shirley Saffore walked into the cream-colored Progress Village Senior Center, past the “Welcome Back” balloons and camera crews, and saw faces she’d known her whole life.
After two years, they were different — some childhood friends moved more slowly, some were now accompanied by canes. Some were noticeably missing. Saffore, a 68-year-old Tampa native, knew she was different too.
But the expressions throughout the packed room mirrored hers, with beaming smiles apparent even under masks. A banner proclaimed, “We Missed You So Much,” echoing what friends were at last telling each other in-person.
“It’s so nice to be back, even if we didn’t all make it,” Saffore said. “We didn’t see each other — even through funerals.”
For two years, Hillsborough County’s senior centers, which offer events and community support to older adults in the area, have been shuttered due to the coronavirus pandemic.
On Monday, three reopened their doors, signaling a hopeful new phase of the pandemic for Tampa Bay seniors.
“We were getting plenty of calls asking why we were still closed,” said Frances Durán Brea, general manager for Hillsborough County Department of Aging Services. “We lost a few of them to COVID and to other things — so it means so much more to them now.”
For Mary Baldwin, 84, many of the faces at the center were new.
Baldwin joined Progress Village in 2019, shortly after the death of her husband of over two decades. The pandemic hit just months later.
Hillsborough County senior centers offered remote activities and outdoor luncheons to help elderly community members combat loneliness and stay in touch during the years of lockdown.
Baldwin participated in prayer lines and Zoom calls with other Progress Village members throughout her time in isolation.
“It really filled a void in my life,” Baldwin said. “It saved me when I was in a dark place. Because I was so lonely, and depressed honestly, after my husband died. We’d always done everything together, and I didn’t have anybody to talk to.
“My goal today is to put faces to voices,” she added. “Today is exciting because it’s like, ‘Oh, that sounds like the lady I saw on screen.”
Saffore, too, longed for something more than a digital connection.
“We stayed in touch over Zoom, but this is a lot better,” she said. “Because we can see each other in-person — we don’t have to wonder how they are.”
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Two other Hillsborough County senior centers — Ruskin Senior Center and Plant City Senior Center — also welcomed back older adults Monday. They join neighboring senior centers in Pinellas and Pasco counties, some of which reopened a few months into the pandemic.
The county plans to progressively open more of its 20 senior gathering and dining centers every two weeks.
All Hillsborough County senior centers will have opened their doors by June 6.