Editor’s Note: After a short-lived reprieve, with just enough time to regroup in the wake of the effects of the Covid-19 virus, many individuals and organizations shifted the way they used to do things in order to meet the needs of the people they serve. Here at the Lebanon Times, we reached out to the Lebanon Senior Center and the main Arts organizations in Lebanon to hear what they are doing differently.

Senior Power to the Rescue!

While Covid-19 continues to rear its ugly head, Lebanon citizens and organizations are rising up and pivoting in its face!

It has been the case that the virus has taken a toll on seniors more than other age groups. However, don’t underestimate Senior Power, especially in Lebanon.

The following quote from an article in the Naples Daily News describes the plight of our seniors: “They’ve lived in the time of World War II, polio, the sixties, inflation, 9/11, and the Great Depression.” Now they stand up and stare down the pandemic.

Fortunately for our seniors in the Grafton County region, there is a safe haven extending a helping hand and comfort. The Lebanon Senior Center became the first Grafton County location to establish a senior center following the incorporation of the Grafton County Senior Citizens Council in 1973. That senior center offers the following: Congregate Meals, Home Delivered Meals, Transportation, Book Club, Birthday Celebrations, Crafts, Health Clinics, Support Groups, Tax Assistance, Craft Shop, Computer Café, and Telephone Reassurance.

In the short span of a few weeks after the pandemic announcement, all those comforting benefits would be altered drastically. Jill Vahey has been with the Lebanon Senior Center since 2002 when she was named Activities/Volunteer Coordinator and took over as the Director in 2003. It went from being at the helm of a sailboat on a calm, peaceful lake to a raging storm in a tornado literally overnight.

“My personal reaction was that of great sadness and concern for the population we provide services for,” Jill explained. “Operations at the Center changed dramatically. We had to close the Center in late March. We were only able to provide frozen meals to individuals who once frequented the Senior Center for congregate meals. We were doing this by offering daily drive-by service. The kitchen was shut down and we were forced to outsource our frozen meals from a company out of state. Our buses were taken off the road and we were no longer able to transport individuals to medical appointments, shopping, or for various other needs. Many of our staff were furloughed and those remaining took over many other roles of the day-to-day operations. Volunteers could no longer volunteer. Our funding stream was impacted severely. Fundraising events came to a halt. All other in-house programs also came to a halt.”

As devastating as that turn of events appeared, Jill reports that with the help of the community and the dedicated effort by the Grafton County Senior Citizens Council management, slowly the negatives of the situation displayed a positive movement. Rays of sunshine poked through the dark clouds.

“People have been extremely grateful and supportive of all we were trying to do. Many offered to help in any way they could. I see more neighbor-helping-neighbor. I hear words of kindness and encouragement and feel a real sense of community. The staff at the Center try to reach out via a phone call to as many individuals as possible each week. If we miss a call, people call us to see how we are doing. We recently had a drive-by volunteer luncheon. The faces of the volunteers who’ve not seen each other in months was so heartwarming and emotional.”

One of the most utilized services of the Center was the Meals on Wheels program and that critical offering saw a huge increase due to demand.

“Meals on Wheels has more than doubled since the pandemic,” Jill noted. “Before Covid we had an estimate of 60-70 individuals receiving meals. Once Covid hit, the numbers grew to 140-150 individuals needing meals. What was once a daily hot meal delivery for Meals on Wheels is now once-a-week delivery of four frozen meals and one hot meal. An average of 650 meals are now going out on Thursdays. Our buses and bus drivers are the new means for getting meals to people.”

Now, as we enter the winter season in the Lebanon region, the demand for services from the Center will become even more critical. Jill eyes the future with optimism that the Center’s mission will not only continue, but flourish.

“The kitchen staff are back and home cooking has begun once again. We are offering Grab-and-Go hot meals every Monday and Wednesday from 12-12:30pm in our parking lot. We will offer a Holiday Bazaar, Veterans Day celebration, bake sales, and our annual holiday dinners, all by drive-by. Art, music, and writing classes have all started via Zoom. We are working on ways to make it safe for our buses to transport once again and to open our doors at the Senior Center again.”

If history holds true, nothing can stop the extraordinary volunteer spirit of the Lebanon community and its dedication to its senior citizens who have given so much to make it a premier place to live.

Maintaining the Arts Through the Pandemic

AVA Gallery and the Lebanon Opera House Prevail

Over the years, Lebanon residents have witnessed their community become one of the premier centers for the arts in the entire state of New Hampshire. Two of the iconic contributors to that success have been the Lebanon Opera House (LOH) and the AVA Art Gallery (Alliance for the Visual Arts).

Founded in 1973, AVA is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization. Today it occupies the Carter-Kelsey Building at 11 Bank Street in Lebanon. Prior to that, a handful of Upper Valley artists decided to look for a place to show their work. Its first location was a rustic barn adjacent to the Congregational Church.

The LOH is a historic 800-seat performing arts center and is the largest proscenium theater in the Upper Valley. It was built in 1924 and began life as a vaudeville theater, community gathering place and city hall.

That is the background of the two art centers, but the critical question that prevails today is: How will they survive the Covid pandemic? Heading up that task are Executive Directors Heidi Reynolds (AVA) and Joseph Clifford (LOH). Both report that there have been major adjustments, but the crusade to continue promoting the cultural arts is alive and well.

Joseph Clifford: “As a result of the Covid-19 crisis, the LOH was forced to suspend all programming by national touring artists, resident community arts partners, and the Lebanon School District on March 13, 2020. To date, we’ve canceled dozens of performances and LOH will be dark through at least mid-March 2021.”

While that statement certainly strikes right to the heart for entertainment lovers, Joe reports that there are viable alternatives. Operating funds remain the most critical factor, however. “Like many in the nonprofit arts community, we rely heavily on rental fees and ticket revenues to make ends meet. With programming suspended, there is no earned income at this time. I’ve doubled down on fundraising and have been fortunate to receive relief funds via New Hampshire’s CARES Act allocation. Through this one-time emergency funding, we’ve been given the financial bandwidth to restore several jobs and replace a portion of our lost revenue.”

Although the doors are closed and that beautiful theater remains darkened, Joe reports that there has been a concentrated move to feature digital entertainment at its best. “For now, we’ve pivoted to online events with the launch of our digital LOH On Location series featuring house concerts and discussions. It’s certainly not a replacement for the live theater-going experience, but it does allow us to support artists during a time of need and bring together members of our community who embrace the joy of live performance – even if it is on a screen. We’re setting our sights on LOH’s centennial season in 2024 with an eye toward playing an even greater role in the Upper Valley arts ecosystem. My goal is to keep LOH strong during this extended intermission so we can emerge on the other side to welcome back artists and performers.”

Heidi Reynolds: “Having to close AVA Gallery and Art Center felt surreal and confusing. At that time, no one knew how serious this was going to be. As we considered all the contingencies, we began planning as if we would be up and running within a few weeks. Then the shutdown dragged on and plans were continually made and canceled. Every bit of information we received and every decision seemed fraught with pitfalls. Are we being too careful or are we being reckless?”

As with LOH, funding quickly became a major issue. “AVA immediately lost a significant amount of money when issuing refunds, and losses continued to snowball as time passed and we weren’t selling artwork or running classes. While we were closed, we continued working behind the scenes to fund-raise, write grants, move to online classes, and generate a new revenue stream while planning for the eventual reopening of the galleries and building.”

Heidi now turns her attention to the future with a positive attitude. “I view the future very positively. The pandemic has been difficult, but it has propelled us into a regional and national arena that is opening doors for AVA. Venturing into online classes, events, and gallery tours is something AVA knew we needed to tackle. The pandemic forced us to do it now rather than later. The upside is that we have participants throughout New England and across the country who are regularly attending our classes, or a gallery talk, or buying art online. Also we have seen those who normally wouldn’t think of themselves as artistic taking a chance on art because they need the relief. The pain people are going through has deepened their understanding of how important the arts are.”