Driving down the midtown portion of Center Street, with its gas stations and autobody repair shops, one wouldn’t expect to see something like the Intercultural Senior Center (ISC). But, in fact, the building’s former life as a motorcycle dealership actually made it ideal for ISC’s purposes: “We chose this building for a number of reasons: it’s a single story so it’s accessible to people with mobility issues, the garage is huge so it can store our transportation vans, and it’s right in the center of town with easy access to the interstate so that our vans can get around the city” explains Executive Director Carolina Padilla.
ISC is Carolina’s brainchild. Over her years of working in various Omaha non-profits, Carolina began to notice a distinct gap in services for older adults, especially those who face language barriers. Taking inspiration from her own aging aunts in Guatemala, she endeavored to provide a space for seniors to find community and enrichment together, officially forming ISC as a non-profit organization in 2009.
In those early days, ISC’s focus was on Spanish-speaking seniors, and meetings provided an opportunity for participants to learn some English, share meals, and engage in light exercise. However, it became clear that the needs of seniors in the Omaha community extended far beyond this group. Therefore, in 2013, ISC began welcoming seniors from refugee communities, including Sudan, Somalia, Bhutan, Nepal, and Burma, as well as native English speakers. ISC also added staff members from various refugee communities to provide language interpretation and cultural insights, ensuring that all seniors could participate fully in ISC’s programming.
Participation grew over the years largely through word-of-mouth, and space was held in various South Omaha locations- among them, the Saint Lutheran Church community room, the basement of the Sokol South Omaha Building, and the main floor of what was then the YMCA South Branch. Finally, ISC was able to purchase its current building in 2019.
ISC continues to grow organically, adding new programs and services as additional participant needs are discovered. Unfortunately, the global pandemic has only heightened the many challenges that were already facing the senior community- isolation, lack of resources, and depression being chief among them. In January of 2020, ISC had installed what was perhaps the first food pantry in the region specifically geared toward older adults. As the pandemic took hold and in-person services had to be halted, ISC quickly pivoted to delivering food pantry items. Although the building was closed to the public, membership skyrocketed as more and more community members called upon ISC to provide them with the food assistance they needed to help make ends meet.
Now that ISC’s doors are open again, ISC continues to provide food pantry deliveries, and ISC’s case workers are available to assist with coordinating government services for eligible seniors, scheduling and attending medical appointments, home visits in our SAFE bus for case management, and other new needs as they may arise. Seniors can find enrichment through in-person classes, support groups, exercise, and shared meals. But it is really the friendships and sense of community found at ISC that keeps seniors coming back day after day.
This is certainly the case for Francisco, who has been coming to ISC for so long that he can’t recall how his wife, who introduced him to the Center, heard about it in the first place. After her death in 2017, Francisco continued attending ISC, and he credits it with helping him deal with the pain of this loss, cheering him up whenever he started feeling depressed. He describes ISC as “a nice place to share with others, to make friends…there are good people here”. Francisco has even managed to find new love later in life, in the form of another ISC participant whom he has now married.
Although his favorite activities here are drawing and music, Francisco has been making good use of the classes offered, including English as a Second Language and Citizenship classes, which are largely taught by dedicated volunteers. Thanks to his hard work in these classes, he passed his citizenship exam last August. But he’s not resting on his laurels now. He plans to further improve his English so that he can keep reading and learning. He has a message for those considering taking the US citizenship exam: “It’s important when you’re studying for citizenship, don’t just try to learn the questions- understand the answers and the history and meaning behind them- you need to understand your rights, too”.
Francisco is just one example of the hundreds of Omaha seniors from all over the world who have found purpose, aid, and community at ISC over the years. As our population continues to grow older and more diverse, ISC will be here to serve our senior community.
If you are interested in learning more about ways to get involved with ISC as a volunteer, participant/member, or donor, visit our website at www.interculturalseniorcenter.org or call us at 402-444-6529.
ISC is accredited by the National Council on Aging. There is no charge to become a member of ISC.