Approximately 30 people who volunteer at the Aztec Senior-Community Center on South Park Avenue were recognized for their efforts, enjoyed punch and cake and collected a volunteer award pin before many of them got back to work serving a lunch of green chili cheeseburgers and baked beans with salad to more than 75 hungry guests.
“How long have you volunteered here?” Senior-Community Center Director Cindy Iacovetto asked Christine Pina, a fixture at the center who bounces when she walks and offers hugs and a bright smile to everyone.
“Eleven years since my husband died, so 11 years I have worked here,” Pina answered.
“That's a lot of coffee,” Iacovetto joked.
“And I drink it all!” Pina said with a laugh.
“So that's where you get all that energy!” Iacovetto said.
And keeping the center — which opens its doors each morning at 7 a.m. and serves as many as 150 meals a day with city support, four paid staff and volunteers — takes plenty of energy.
California native LaVerne Ludington, 89, has volunteered at the center for the last eight years. Her friend, Doris Brown, got her to pay a first visit to the center in 2006.
“When I first came here, I thought all the people were too old for me,” Ludington said. “Then I found out they were my peers.”
Ludington sat at a table and visited with fellow volunteers Brown, Ila Mae Sullivan, and Lois McCuller. They all agreed that the center is a comfort for those who live alone, and a great place to make friends.
“I enjoy seeing people here,” said Brown.
While many of the center's volunteers are women, some men pitch in.
One of them is seven-year volunteer Ernie Payne, who grew up in a small town in Illinois. In a wheelchair he's used for the last five years after symptoms of polio he contracted as a teenager returned, Payne rolls into the center each day and distributes bread and greets guests at the door.
“It gives me something to do so I don't just sit here and look stupid,” Payne, 85, said wryly. “As long as I can talk and visit with people, I've got it made. I have always enjoyed life, and I think I'll keep on enjoyin' it.”
Many of the volunteers honored on Tuesday downplayed their contributions, including center volunteer coordinator Florene Ensor.
Ensor was paid special tribute by Iacovetto for her 24 years of volunteer work at the center. Ensor received a plaque and bouquet of flowers and sustained applause as Iacovetto spoke.
“Don't you cry,” Iacovetto told Ensor, while holding back tears of her own. “But this place would not run without Florene. She runs the show.”
Ensor arrives at the center at 6 a.m. each morning to set up for breakfast and the morning's activities, she runs down a checklist of all the volunteers and assigns tasks.
“I just started doing tables and asked what more I could do,” Ensor, 85, said.
When she's not volunteering at Bethel Baptist Church, in Aztec, she collects bread donations at Safeway for the center, helps a local chapter of a disabled veterans organization, and supports organizations that include ECHO food bank and Ronald McDonald House in Albuquerque.
“I guess I've always helped out as much as I could,” she said. Then she was on her feet again, helping wipe tables and bus trays after lunch.