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Volunteer's dedication keeps things going at Central Coast Senior Center

Pearl Cole manages the Central Coast Senior Center in Oceano.
Pearl Cole manages the Central Coast Senior Center in Oceano. jmellom@thetribunenews.com

Many days, you can find Pearl Cole at the Central Coast Senior Center, just down the street from the Rock & Roll Diner in Oceano.

During the week, you’ll find her greeting members, coordinating volunteers and overseeing activities. On weekends, she scrubs the center’s floor and cleans the chairs and tables.

Cole tries to take a few days off each week.

“You know, I’m 89, and I have a limited amount of energy,” she said by way of explanation.

Cole, who is president of the senior center’s board and a charter member of the organization, has overseen the facility for the past year, managing its activities and juggling maintenance needs. Cole is working for free; the center can’t afford to hire a manager, she said.

Nor can it afford to hire a cleaning service or pay for maintenance work.

In fact, the senior center is barely squeaking by on $20-a-year membership fees, donations and the small fees it charges for numerous programs, such as tai chi, yoga and art classes.

It also brings in some revenue by renting its commercial kitchen to groups including the Senior Nutrition Program of San Luis Obispo County, which prepares hot meals for seniors.

The center costs about $2,000 a month to operate, including insurance and property tax payments, said Arroyo Grande Councilman Jim Guthrie, who joined the senior center board as treasurer last year after members reached out to him for help.

Last year, the center ended up in the black, and leftover funds were put into its reserve account. But this year could be a different story.

Soon after Guthrie got involved, he realized that the center had failed to file annual returns, called a Form 990, with the IRS for more than three years. In doing so, the senior center lost its nonprofit status and has had to pay income taxes — stretching its already thin budget.

Betty Milne, who managed the center from 2004 until health issues prompted her to leave in August 2011, said she didn’t realize that the center’s status had been revoked. Milne filed the return after a new state policy took effect in 2007 but did not file the following two years, she said.

“I didn’t realize that health issues were taking their toll,” she explained.

Guthrie has since reapplied for nonprofit status and is waiting to see what taxes or penalties might result. He hopes that the IRS grants the nonprofit status and that it does so retroactively so the center can recoup the approximately $700 it has paid in federal and state taxes in 2010 and 2011.

“At this point, we’re kind of in survival mode,” Guthrie said.

While the board remains in a holding pattern, waiting to hear from state and federal officials, the senior center continues to hum with daily activities.

On a recent Wednesday, Cole gave a tour of the senior center while about six members participated in a tai chi class and a volunteer set tables for the senior nutrition program’s daily hot lunch.

At some point, Cole hopes to take advantage of some of the center’s programs. But for the moment, she’s busy being a self-described “gofer girl.”Cole is committed to the senior center because she believes in its purpose: to provide seniors, many of whom live alone, a place to socialize and stay active.

She hopes the center, which is owned and leased by the county, is eventually able to expand and offer more activities to attract new members. A pool table might bring in more men, she said.

“We have a lot of widows in this group,” she said.

To volunteer, join or learn more about the senior center, call 481-7886. The center is at 1580 Railroad St. in Oceano.

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