Melrose says farewell to a senior citizen referral office

Leocadia Ferreira, 68 and her husband Rafael Sieles, 95 at Buena Ayuda's farewell ceremony.

Buena Ayuda closes its office

By Maria Clark
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The farewell ceremony at Buena Ayuda Para Personas de Edad’s corner office in Melrose was bittersweet. During its three years of operation, it has come to represent support, comfort and respect for seniors throughout the South Bronx.

When it closed for good on June 30, many seniors were left to wonder where they will find a suitable replacement.

Alfonso Chavez Jr., who is blind, attended the agency’s solemn closing on June 4.

“This is like a home to me,” he said. “I don’t see. I am in a world by myself. Coming here and listening to them gives me comfort and makes me feel I am somebody.”

Harry Hernandez, a social worker with Buena Ayuda’s parent company, Bon Secours, a Maryland-based health network, opened the center three years ago, as a bilingual information and referral center for senior citizens. It offered computer classes, helped translate bills and tax documents and assisted with housing and health concerns.

Chavez and his fellow seniors in the neighborhood soon discovered that Buena Ayuda was not only a place where they could get help navigating confusing bureaucracy. Within the cozy office, they met friends and had a quiet place to rest between errands.

“People couldn’t believe this office was here for free,” said Harry Hernandez.

Buena Ayuda opened in 2006 thanks to a three-year grant from Bon Secours Riverdale affiliate, the Frances Schervier Health Network. The parent organization cited lack of funds as the reason for the closing.

“Everything is free, so it’s expensive to keep up. It’s very unfortunate,” said Nadine Baker, a spokeswoman for Schervier.

“When we felt lost, here there was always somebody to help,” said Aida Gonzalez, 73, a local resident. ”Where am I going to go now?”

The majority of the seniors who frequent the office face language barriers, in addition to the typical health concerns that come with old age.

Chavez first sought help at Buena Ayuda after his apartment became flooded and the building’s superintendant refused to fix the problem. Buena Ayuda helped him contact city housing agencies to get someone to clean up. The office has since become a regular stop on his stomping grounds.

“This is like giving us a piece of candy, letting us taste it and then taking it away, no questions asked,” Chavez said at the farewell ceremony.

Leocadia Ferreira, 68 and her husband Rafael Sieles, 95, sought Buena Ayuda’s help after realizing they had been tricked by a travel agent. While the couple was on a long-awaited trip back home to Santo Domingo, Sieles became ill, and Ferreira had to fly back to New York to keep from losing their visas. She noticed that although she had meant to purchase just one round-trip ticket, the agent had tricked her into purchasing two. Harry Hernandez helped her get her money back and clear up her visa complications.

Hernandez pointed lovingly to a cozy sitting area in front of the glass storefront where two elderly gentlemen sat reading the newspaper as they waited for the farewell ceremony to begin.

“I wish I could say that what I have done would make things easier for them once we’re no longer here,” he said. “I hope.”