Meet Paula Basta, Executive Director of the Northeast (Levy) Senior Center

by Peter von Buol

Since first opening its doors in 1979, the city of Chicago’s Northeast (Levy) Senior Center, 2019 W. Lawrence Ave., has been a vital asset for Chicago’s senior citizens. The center, one of six regional centers operated by the city’s department of family and support services, primarily serves residents of the North Side’s 26th, 32nd, 42nd, 43rd, 44th, 46th, 47th, 48th, 49th, and 50 wards.

For the past 13 years, Paula Basta, M.Div., has served as the executive director of the center. Basta, who has spent her entire professional career in social work, says she has especially enjoyed the opportunity to work with the senior citizens of the city’s north side. The center is a gathering place for people from all over the world. All now call Chicago home.

“This center is unique in a variety of ways – we look like the north side of Chicago – we are the most diverse senior center – there are many languages spoken here, many elders from all around the world – many backgrounds, many different faith traditions and many different cultures, and needs.  It is often amazing to hear so many languages spoken during our breakfast and lunch times, as well as during the daily activities we do here,” said Basta.

The center hosts more than 300 local senior clubs and senior groups. Its facilities include a modern fitness club, a dining hall with a performance stage, a pool hall and classroom spaces.

“Our most popular class is the Zumba (with over 150 participants) followed by the regular daily fitness classes, open dance classes and parties, along with ping pong, pool, bingo and the ever-popular Sidewalk sales, during the summer /fall months,” said Basta. While many consider the center as a place for physical-fitness, social-networking and adult-classes, Basta adds the center also offers seniors a friendly place to access to city services.

“We are the only site on the north side with an RTA staff person, who can assist them with the Reduced Fare or Free ride card for disabled or senior citizens. [We] also have a staff person here who does the Benefits Access Applications for State of Illinois reduced vehicle stickers,” Basta said.

Additional partnerships with government agencies, Basta said, also help get the proper resources to seniors. In addition, volunteers remain a vital component to help it function properly. Volunteer opportunities include teaching computer classes, art classes and jewelry-making classes. In addition, kitchen-help is always needed. Another key component has been the Northeast Auxiliary, the non-profit partner of the center.

“Obviously, because we are a city-run agency, we have many other partnerships with agencies like the Chicago Public Library, the Chicago Park District, Chicago Public Schools, to name just a few. We also have many volunteers who work at the senior center in a variety of ways.  We always need people to help teach computer classes, and since we serve over 200 meals a day here we could always use help in our kitchen, playing Bingo, jewelry-making, art classes, etc.  You name it – we do it here,” Basta said.

Basta is especially proud of being able to provide a community-space for seniors to allow them to live healthy and fulfilling lives within their own community. Being active at the center has helped many to continue to live independently.
“It’s a place that keeps senior healthy and well. They [remain] engaged in the neighborhood in which they live – which is key to staying active, in their own homes and not in a nursing home! Our mission is ‘Working with community partners, we connect Chicago residents and families to resources that build stability, support their well-being and empower them to thrive,’” Basta added. 

Prior to her work at the center, Basta had spent decades as a social worker in the Chicago area. She said she had been inspired at an early age to work to help make life better for others. She credits her Catholic-school education in the 1970s.

“My inspiration was twofold – in my early Catholic education (growing up in the 70’s) social- justice was a prominent theme, so we would show how our faith and actions were connected to making this a better world. Later, meeting my first social worker at the age of 16 and hearing about the work she was doing with families less fortunate [was inspirational].  It was a concrete way to see again the connection between our actions and our faith,” Basta said.
Today, as executive director of the center, Basta remains committed to her youthful ideals.
“Seeing how we make a difference in the lives of seniors on a daily basis, those who come here for services and the programs and then leave better off, makes this a terrific and very rewarding job. Social work is a great way to connect to change the world for the better, while also working with people who rely on your expertise to maintain and enhance the quality of their lives,” Basta said.

For more information go to www.cityofchicago.org/fss
Northeast (Levy) Senior Center
Chicago Dept. of Family and Support Services – Senior Services
2019 W. Lawrence Ave.
Chicago,  IL.  60625
312-742-2615

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