The executive director of a senior center in Kissimmee devotes his life to helping others, especially Puerto Ricans in Central Florida — a community facing many challenges.
FLORIDA — Norberto Fonseca dedicates his life to helping communities. Since the pandemic began a few months ago, he noticed that twice as many people required assistance even with basic needs like food.
Fonseca is the executive director of Advance Senior Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the care of senior communities in Kissimmee.
When the center was founded in August 2016, the facility tended to eight seniors. Nowadays they provide services to over 1,500 members.
“Ninety-eight percent of them are Puerto Rican,” Fonseca told The Americano.
The director explains the nonprofit organization was created after seeing how much of the elderly population in Osceola County was below the poverty level.
“There are nearly 11,500 elderly citizens in Osceola County; 10,000 of them are below the poverty level. That’s why four years ago we had the idea of creating a food bank specifically for the elderly. Every week we distribute groceries to 150 senior citizens who show up at the center,” explains Fonseca.
Members often spend the day in the center’s building. They receive medical services, attend talks, get meals and snacks for the day, play games, and get involved in the myriad activities offered.
“People in their golden years are super grateful. Once they know you and ‘read’ your heart, they are faithful, loyal, and committed,” Fonseca observes.
At the center, the director said, many members look forward to the last Friday of the year when a Puerto Rican-style new year’s party is held at a farm, with games, lechón, arroz con gandules, and an orchestra for dancing.
“We recreate New Year’s Eve. They cry and hug each other. That’s the memory they hold dear because on the actual New Year’s Eve they go to bed early, after getting tired of waiting for that call from their children that never happens.”
A Much-Needed Food Bank
Advance Senior Center has a food bank program that also benefits other communities besides seniors. Every month, the program distributes 75,000 pounds of food to nearly 2,500 families.
“There are many Puerto Ricans who lost their jobs at Disney parks. There are thousands of unemployed families,” says Fonseca. “Since March, we have doubled the amount of food we give. We have seen many families in need, and still, we are not giving enough.”
Originally from Caguas, Fonseca moved to New York in 1989 to develop community programs in evangelical churches.
He returned to Puerto Rico a decade later and started working as operations manager of the law firm McConnell Valdés.
The September 11 terrorist attack affected the law firm, and Fonseca lost his job on the island. “Shortly after, I received a job offer in Florida to develop community projects in Hispanic churches,” Fonseca says.
Fonseca arrived in Kissimmee and started working in social and health care areas for Hispanic communities. “In 2010, I started working on projects addressing the elderly population. We initiated programs that later on became the Advance Senior Center.”
The director has witnessed the growth of Kissimmee’s population in the last few years, especially after Hurricane María hit Puerto Rico in September 2017.
“Significant changes have happened since. Large groups were going from one place to another until they returned to the island. But also a large number of professionals found work in education, health, and other areas,” Fonseca explains.
The director hopes the upcoming elections will yield beneficial changes for Puerto Rican and Hispanic communities.
“The number of Puerto Ricans [in Kissimmee] has doubled. These upcoming elections are very important for us,” Fonseca concludes.