Seniors and their supporters gathered in the parking lot of the East Columbia 50+ Center April 30 to make it clear that they’re through with sitting quietly.

Waving small rainbow-colored shovels, honking car horns, chanting “What do you want? Build a center!” more than 250 participants sent a message to the Howard County Council that it’s time to fully fund a senior center in East Columbia so it can open in 2023.

The rally was organized by People Acting Together in Howard (PATH), a countywide group of churches, synagogues and mosques.

Seniors rally at the East Columbis 50+ Center to demand county fund renovations to the facility. TBM photo by Emily Calkins.

At the end of March, Howard County Executive Calvin Ball announced that the East Columbia 50+ Center, currently housed in the East Columbia Branch library, would receive $1 million in state funding and possibly $5.5 million in county funding toward renovations if the county council approves his proposed fiscal 2022 capital budget.

Budget numbers tell only part of the story, said those gathered at the rally.

Many East Columbia residents are predominantly nonwhite and feel they have been overlooked by the county time and time again. Owen Brown is 66 percent nonwhite.

Speaking at the rally, Rev. John West, pastor at St. John Baptist Church in Columbia, said, “It’s time to show our seniors how much we care for them.”

West’s 94-year-old father cheered with the crowd.

For 25 years, the center has been three rooms squeezed into the East Columbia library.

Rev. Paige Getty, senior minister at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia said that seniors “deserve more than three cramped rooms at the library to meet their needs. We are insisting that our elected officials make the equitable and just decision to fund a new 50+ center in East Columbia and fulfill a commitment that was made as part of a long-term plan.”

Getty added that the people the center serves are “often overlooked because of where they live or because of their race. The East Columbia 50+ Center serves more seniors of color than any other center in the county.”

Pearl Atkinson-Stewart, who represented the 50+ Steering Committee for the center, said, “Make it shovel ready. This center was built in 1997 and since then nothing has been done to update it.”

She added, “We have not been given equity. We have waited and waited and it’s really overdue. The need is real and we can no longer accept excuses.”

State Del. Vanessa Atterbeary (D-13) as well as Howard County council members Christiana Mercer Rigby and Opel Jones spoke at the rally.

Atterbeary said that she supported funding the center. “James Rouse believed Columbia would be a garden of equity,” she said. “Equity should not just be a buzzword here in Columbia.”

According to a report by the Office on Aging and Independence, 86 percent of the center’s population are age 60 or older and 40 percent of Howard’s total older adult population resides in East Columbia.

The plan will expand the existing center from 3,800 square feet to 29,600 square feet. It will include a commercial kitchen, fitness equipment room and exercise studio, community meeting space, technology hub and a social day program for at-risk adults.

Construction could begin as early as August if the county council approves the funding.

Henrietta Milward, a Columbia resident who has been coming to the center for eight years, said, “Even when the library was renovated, the center’s three rooms remained the same. It boggles my mind that no one has expanded this in 25 years. I think we’re underserved. Why? I want to know why we’re being treated like this.”

The vocal crowd asked, in unison, “Will you fund the East Columbia 50+ Center in the capital budget so it will open in 2023?”

Howard County council member Rigby said, “My answer is a resounding yes. We have waited and waited and now it’s our turn. We deserve investment here.”

Jones added, “This is now in the hands of the county council. The biggest voting bloc in the county is sitting right here: the 50+ demographic.”

Rev. Tyrone P. Jones IV, lead pastor of First Baptist Church of Guilford and co-chair of PATH, said he believes the community deserves better.

He said, “Our sages and elders deserve more than three rooms in a library. Last year the council put up roadblocks. We need one more councilperson to say yes. We need our elected officials to do the right thing.”

By Susan Kim | Staff Writer | The Business Monthly | June 2021 Issue