On most weekdays, Belinda Gail Dixon arrives at the Donora Senior Center between 9 and 10 a.m. and begins preparing for the day’s lunch program.
She meticulously prepares the salads, cutting the ingredients and arranging them just right. When she later serves them to the patrons at the center, they have a look like they came right out of a food magazine.
The cakes and pies receive the same blue-ribbon treatment.
“I try to make them presentable for the people,” Dixon proudly says.
The 62-year-old Donora woman is a part of a growing trend in the workplace. By 2020, one quarter of all workers will be 55 years of age or older. National Employ Older Workers Week will be observed this week, recognizing the vital role of older workers in the workforce, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
There are 36,366 adults over the age of 65 in Washington County. The average employee age in Washington County is 44.3, nearly four years older than the statewide workforce.
The overall unemployment rate for Washington County seniors mirrors the county workforce – 3.8 percent – an improvement over the Pennsylvania rate of 4.5 percent.
Dixon acquired her job at the Donora Senior Center through the Senior Community Service Employment Program. Authorized by the Title IV Older Americans Act of 1965, the Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP) is an income-eligible program, rooted in community service and training. It is the nation’s oldest program to help low-income seniors find part-time employment, according to the National Council on Aging. The participants are matched with community service, non-profit organizations for placement.
The program prioritizes veterans, those with disabilities, and those over the age 65. The program is designed to overcome barriers such as limited English proficiency and housing crisis. Locally, the program is administered through the SWPA Area Agency on Aging, offering GED classes and computer classes, for example, to meet the employer’s needs
“Belinda has been a shining example of what this program can do for a senior in meeting their needs and the flexibility of a senior’s life,” said Matt Uram, job developer for SCSEP.
Dixon has been in the program for 48 months, which is the durational limit.
“When they reach that limit, we potentially place them with the agency they were currently working for in an unsubsidized employer,” Uram said. “Some retire and some even have gone to further their education.”
Belinda loves the program and credits it for her being hired part-time by the Donora Senior Center
She was volunteering at the center, such as home-bound meals, prior to her employment.
Dixon was offered the job to fill vacancy, referred to the program by word-of-mouth
“Word-of-mouth, especially for seniors, goes miles,” Uram said.
Dixon has a license in food service, having previously worked in the kitchen at Jefferson Hills Manor. She has become an integral part of the daily activities at the Donora Senior Center.
People occasionally come to Belinda with a problem, and she listens to them and passes their concerns on to the manager.
“She’s a voice for the senior people of Donora,” Uram said.
In addition to her work in the kitchen, Dixon volunteers for bingo on Monday and Wednesday, before and after lunch.
She also serves the meals to the tables and cleans up in the kitchen.
“She makes sure the people get a good meal, she knows who has allergies and prepares their lunches accordingly,” Uram said.
On Fridays, she and center manager Susan Badzik call in the meal order for the next week from Central Kitchen in Donora.
Dixon has only missed two days of work in four years at the center, hospitalized briefly for a back injury. She has even been on time for work, even on snow days.
“I feel if you get a job, work it,” Belinda said. “You don’t call off.”
“They bring their passion to work; you get that with seniors,” Uram added.
Born and raised in Virginia, she moved to Donora while in the seventh grade when her father moved the family here to work in the mill. The oldest sibling, she has two surviving sisters and two brothers as well as six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren
Dixon likes her job, and the opportunity she received through the Senior Community Service Employment Program.
“I like to work here,” Dixon said. “The patrons are friendly. I feel like I can help them with problems and make sure they are alright.”
“I would tell seniors it’s a great opportunity, give it a try.”