Southold’s Senior Services celebrates golden anniversary

On Friday, the dining room at the Southold Town Senior Services Center in Mattituck was packed, with every seat taken. A band played festive Irish music to entertain the more than 70 seniors who came to the center for lunch.

The meal for the day was – of course – corned beef and cabbage, along with boiled potatoes and Irish soda bread made by senior cook Bob Grippi and cook Devon McKnight.

On Monday, when the dining room was a bit less crowded — the lunch served was lamb stew over noodles, with zucchini and spinach — Mr. Grippi and Mr. McKnight had time to talk about the previous Friday.

“We served a total of 197 meals on Friday,” Mr. Grippi said. That broke down to 70 or so in-house, and the rest to people who pick up their lunch as part of the center’s “grab and go” program or who receive at-home deliveries.

In March, Southold Town’s senior program celebrated its 50th anniversary. In March 1974, Southold was one of the first in the state to initiate a lunch program for seniors. It began as a Meals on Wheels program, later expanded to the hall at St. Agnes R.C. Church in Greenport, and then, in the mid-1990s, to its present site on Pacific Street in Mattituck.

On Friday, March 22, the center will be site of a celebration for all the program has accomplished in half a century — and it’s a great deal, including a whopping 2 million meals served.

“The senior program is the crown jewel of town services,” said former town supervisor Scott Russell, who in his decades in Southold government can attest to what worked best. 

“It is a program that has been built brick-by-brick through hard work and dedication,” he said. “Those who lead and those who work on behalf of our senior population do so with genuine affection for our seniors and pride in our program.”

He singled out Karen McLaughlin, the program’s former director who retired in 2022 and was one of the unsung heroes of town government. “This is a house that Karen McLaughlin built and I can’t think of anyone better to fill those massive shoes than Jacqueline Martinez.”

Ms. Martinez, the center’s current director, showed a visitor around the center on Friday and Monday, pointing to the number of regular seniors who come to the center for the Monday-through-Friday lunches, provided to anyone over the age of 60. 

In addition to the five-days-a-week lunches, the center also provides senior day care in an adjacent building on the site and a number of services, all with the goal of helping older town residents remain in their homes. 

“If someone calls and needs a leaky faucet fixed, one of our people who go and help them,” Ms. Martinez said.

The center also offers a raft of programs — from arts and crafts, to guest speakers, to classes on senior wellness. Movies are also on the schedule. Last week, appropriately, it was “Brooklyn,” a 2015 film about an Irish immigrant’s arrival in New York City.

Ms. Martinez started at the center in 2007 working for Ms. McLaughlin. “The goal of the program is to assist our seniors in every way we can,” Ms. Martinez said. “We have a shopping assistance program where we can pick up the person and take them shopping, or we can go over a list with someone and go for them.

“Working here has changed my life,” she said. “Working with Karen was amazing. I can’t think of a more perfect situation. I am very grateful to Karen for all the training she gave me.”

For her part, Ms. McLaughlin gushed about Ms. Martinez taking over the director position. “She is the very best,” she declared. “She loves the place and the work. She’s wonderful.”

Ms. McLaughlin began working for senior services in 1988 when it was still feeding seniors in the St. Agnes hall. She began as a volunteer and worked her way up to director in 2001. 

“The joy of this job is that you can see the difference you make in people’s lives every day,” she said. “Every day I would come home and know we had left people in a much better place.

“We prided ourselves that every day we provided a delicious meal, with guidance from a dietitian,” she added. “Before St. Patrick’s Day last week, Bob [Grippi] sent me a photograph of the Irish soda bread he made. He knows how I feel about Irish soda bread. Bob is a good example of the staff: he began as a bus driver, then assistant cook, then senior cook.”

In 2022, Ms. McLaughlin said she was happy to retire, but even happier that Ms. Martinez would take her place.

“I could not have passed the baton on without a great replacement,” she said. “I poured my life into that place. It was such a great privilege to pass on to someone like Jackie, who cares so deeply for our seniors. That gave me such peace and fulfillment.”

Senior Cook Bob Grippi, right, and Cook Devon McKnight in the Senior Services Center kitchen. Steve Wick photo.

Mr. McKnight is in his third year as a cook at the center. He grew up in Greenport and worked at Peconic Landing and at restaurants. He said this job is unlike anything else he’s done. He and Mr. Grippi were standing in front of the stoves in the kitchen as the staff made sure everyone in the dining room was taken care of.

“You are serving people — feeding people,” Mr. McKnight said. “That’s the best part of the job.”

“You can’t do this job without looking out for people,” Mr. Grippi said. “That’s what makes it so special.”

“You put a nutritious meal in front of someone and you can see the joy,” Mr. McKnight said. 

Southold Supervisor Al Krupski said he is looking forward to the center’s party on Friday.

“Everyone who comes in contact with senior services knows how great it is,” he said. “We are very grateful for all they do. Karen is a big reason for the program’s success. This is something we are very proud of. It’s very heartwarming.”