Entertainment discounts draw seniors to SEATS

March 12, 1995|By Dolly Merritt | Dolly Merritt,Special to The Sun

Lillian Ross loves her job helping Howard County seniors get discounts to entertainment events through the Senior Entertainment & Arts Ticket Service. In just three years, membership has mushroomed from 98 to 705 seniors.

"I can hardly wait to come to work every day -- it's so much fun," said the 71-year-old Ellicott City woman who began working for the SEATS program in the Office on Aging as a trainee through Green Thumb Inc., a federally funded employment and training program for seniors.

In January, the Office on Aging hired her as an independent contractor to coordinate the program.

Five years ago, Mrs. Ross had left her job in California as office manager working for a group of radiologists in order to move to Columbia to be near her son.

After arriving in the county, she started looking for work and was hired as a salesclerk in a clothing store at The Mall in Columbia. Though she enjoyed her new position, she says her knees "gave up" because of the marble floors in the store and she was forced to quit.

After visiting the Florence Bain Senior Center in Columbia, Mrs. Ross learned about the Green Thumb program, which pays seniors minimum wage while they are trained for employment. In order to qualify, enrollees -- who receive on-the-job training in government or nonprofit organizations -- must be at least 55 years old and earn no more than $725 a month for a one-person household.

In November 1991, the Green Thumb organization placed Mrs. Ross with the SEATS program, located at Florence Bain, for on-the-job training. She worked 16 hours a week, earning $4.24 per hour.

"Initially, I was told that I would handle room rentals [at the center] and a small program called SEATS," Mrs. Ross said. "As I got into it [the SEATS work], I thought, 'Oh, there are so many opportunities here. We can expand this.' "

She set to work immediately, using computer skills she had learned at Howard Community College through a course paid for by Green Thumb.

At first, Mrs. Ross, an amateur photographer, started "spreading the word" by displaying snapshots she had taken of smiling SEATS members on trips to plays and concerts. She called bus companies to negotiate reduced transportation rates for the membership. She sent out a bimonthly newsletter and conducted training sessions for volunteers who call members about events.

Mrs. Ross' philosophy -- "Let's save as much money as we possibly can, and go with it" -- proved to be successful.

Her first challenge came when she tried to obtain tickets for an Orioles game at the new Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

"I was told to forget it, because I would never get through on the phone; I didn't give up," she said.

On the fifth phone call, Mrs. Ross got through and asked if her group of seniors could be "given the privilege of going to the ballpark." Bleacher seats under cover between third base and home plate were obtained for $5 each. The trip on school buses cost $5 more.

"For $10, we had the greatest time," Mrs. Ross said. "When you have people who are so enthusiastic about something, you want to do more."

That "more" has included half-price tickets to Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia and free tickets to several performances, including a show by Ben Vereen at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore and a production of "The Cherry Orchard" at Center Stage in Baltimore. She also negotiated with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for $5 admission to the group's open rehearsals.

Despite the discounts, however, Mrs. Ross -- who attends all of the functions and serves as leader of the group -- said she believes there are benefits other than monetary ones that come from belonging to the program.

"You don't find members talking about their aches and pains," she said. "Many friendships have started; we have such a great time. . . . Romances have developed through the program; one couple got married, another couple is setting the date."

Today, the program is "nurtured and sustained" by 20 volunteers -- also advisory board members -- who contact members about events that are not listed in the newsletter.

Annual dues are $10 for a single membership; $15 for a dual. The newsletter -- mailed to SEATS members -- includes short descriptions of about 30 entertainment options.

Mrs. Ross has created a box office -- open from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Thursday and staffed by 16 volunteers -- at the front of the center. Last year, 2,224 reservations were processed for 174 events.

"People who are involved and busy all of the time have friends, love and laughter," Mrs. Ross said. "SEATS helps people to obtain those things.

"When I first moved to Columbia from California, I had no friends; now, I have 705."

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