Indians' senior center fulfills long-held dream

February 10, 1991|By Rafael Alvarez

The story goes that a census-taker knocked on the door of Jim Hunt's East Baltimore row house about 20 years ago and found the elderly American Indian playing solitaire, so lonely that he opened his heart to the census man.

There should be a place, Mr. Hunt said, for people like me to go.

Jim Hunt didn't live to see it, but there will soon be a senior center in Baltimore for elderly Indians, and it is already named in his honor. A retired merchant seaman with some time on his hands, Mr. Hunt helped initiate most of the current senior programs for Indians in Baltimore.

When renovations are completed this spring, the Jim Hunt Native American Senior Center at 1633 E. Lombard St. will be the only facility on the East Coast devoted exclusively to elderly Indians.

"Even today, Indians believe that it's a thing like an honor to live that long," said Paul Ortega, a Mescalero Apache who lives in Gaithersburg. "We have always looked to our elders for guidance, wisdom and knowledge."

The Jim Hunt Senior Center will provide room for weekly luncheons and other senior programs run for the past 15 years by the Baltimore American Indian Center at 113 S. Broadway. It will share space with an Indian day-care center.

"Jim was one of the founders of our senior group. Old Jim was a real leader for us, and it was a dream of his to have a separate hall one day," said George Jacobs, current president of the group. "He passed away [in 1988] before we got the hall, and we all hated that he never did see that dream."

The Indian center, which is around the corner, bought the building last year and opened it this winter for day care. The seniors should move in by late April.

While the senior center is geared to Indians, particularly the 3,000 to 5,000 around Broadway and Patterson Park, it is open to anyone.

All the East Baltimoreans who participate now are Indians, most of them Lumbees from North Carolina.

"You know, when you get with your own people you feel more free, happier," said 82-year-old Pearl Bowen as she and other seniors made yellow ribbons for Indian families with relatives in the Persian Gulf war.

"I've worked with all different races, but I like to be with my people best," said Mae Lewis, 71. "We all know what it's like back in North Carolina with farming tobacco and corn and cotton."

The senior programs are run by Gerri Farley, 55, who came north from Pembroke, N.C., in 1955 for a better life.

"The seniors are our culture. When the young people see our work, they always see that the majority of the people involved are seniors," Ms. Farley said. "I think we look to our elders more than most groups in America."

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