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New AARP Chapters Fill a Niche

Groups with common ethnic, special interest backgrounds growing rapidly

aarp niche groups forming in many united states for over 50

Senn Fontanilla, center, helped organize a Filipino American AARP Chapter in Philadelphia. He talks with Caridad Callanta, left, and Lourdes Menez in the St. Augustine Church fellowship hall. — Photo by Matt Roth

En español | When Senn Fontanilla became an AARP member, he figured it was just a way to get insurance. But today, the 56-year-old recruits members of his tight-knit Filipino American community to join AARP's Olde City Philadelphia Chapter 5435, which he helped found a year ago.

See also: AARP chapter locator.

The Filipino community usually gathers for lunch after Sunday Mass at St. Augustine and Our Lady of Hope churches in Philadelphia, where Fontanilla and other AARP volunteers pass out information about health screenings, consumer scams, volunteer opportunities and AARP events.

"Hey, get involved," he tells his Filipino friends. "Take some information. Tell your parents." During Filipino Night at a 76ers game in March, he handed out AARP brochures from a booth in the concourse. The Olde City chapter has also co-sponsored a health fair with the Filipino American Association of Philadelphia.

Fontanilla's group is one of several chapters that have cropped up since AARP stepped up its outreach to divese communities. More than a dozen of Pennsylvania's 135 chapters consist primarily of members of various ethnic groups.

"The special-interest chapters are growing," said Ray Landis, advocacy manager of AARP Pennsylvania. "People have said, 'This is really something that would work well in our community.' "

New Hispanic chapter

Jousette Anaya decided to start a chapter after Grace Rustia, AARP Pennsylvania associate state director for community outreach, mentioned that Pennsylvania didn't have a Hispanic chapter.

"What do you mean?" said Anaya. "That cannot be." She helped form the Northern Liberties Chapter of Philadelphia, which holds meetings in English, with Spanish translation as needed.

"AARP has a lot of information and services that Latinos don't know about," said Anaya. "There is a gap of information."

Anaya refers low-income Hispanic seniors to free meal programs and tells them about proposed legislation that would affect issues such as utility rates and Social Security. The chapter has only 35 members, but it has quickly become a community presence.

"Everyone, including the politicians, knows I am the chapter president," she said. "They just walk up to me on the street all the time. We are the information center."

In June, as part of a statewide AARP lobbying effort, Anaya accompanied a group of members to Harrisburg to meet with legislators and press for reforms on utility rates, long-term care and other key issues.

Anaya figures she is educating herself about matters that will become relevant to her in the coming years. So does Fontanilla, who is concerned about his own Social Security benefits as well as issues affecting his 93-year-old mother and 88-year-old father.

Next: A warm glow. >>

niche aarp groups forming in many united states

Elgene Morales, standing, jokes with Senn Fontanilla, who helped organize a Filipino American AARP Chapter in Philadelphia. Several ethnic-oriented AARP chapters have been formed in the state. — Photo by Matt Roth

Some chapters revolve around interests, not ethnic backgrounds. In western Pennsylvania, many chapters have rallied around gift giving through a community service project called Presents for Patients.

In 2010, volunteers knitted and distributed small lap afghans as well as gift packages containing toiletries or stuffed animals and other items to 2,355 nursing home residents at 20 sites in the region.

"You hold their hand. You tell them who you are," said Pat Domachowski, the AARP liaison for Allegheny County and coordinator for Greene County. "You present the gift, whether it is a lap robe or a stuffed animal. A lot of them don't have any family."

Domachowski, 69, remembers the time four years ago she handed a man in a nursing home a gift and said, "Oh, dear heart, how are you today?"

The man grabbed her hand and said, "I wanted to tell you that no one has called me 'dear heart' since my wife died 20 years ago."

She walked out of the nursing home with a warm glow inside, thinking to herself, "I am in the right line doing things for AARP."

Also of interest: Website connects people 50+ with jobs. >>

Cristina Rouvalis is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh.

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