Lynn Fields Harris is a Philadelphia native and executive director of Center in the Park, a senior center in Germantown. As an executive director for 14 years, Harris uses her background in community service, politics and marketing to serve as an advocate for older adults. As a way to continue the legacy of the center’s co-founders, Laura Drake Nichols and Marguerite L. Riechel, Harris is focused on strengthening the center’s financial status, engaging in community development and active programs.
Would you consider yourself a community leader? How?
I would consider myself someone who is a servant of the community. Public service has always been engrained in my background and growing up and following the examples of my parents. My father worked for state government and he and my mother were involved in the community and the civil rights movement. It was always something that I witnessed being carried to marches, and it always turned out to be important to me to be engaged in making things a little better and providing service for people.
How did you land this position at Center in the Park?
I worked in Harrisburg for the speaker of the house, and worked in Philadelphia for the mayor’s office, and right before I came to Center in the Park I was a deputy director aviation for marketing and public affairs at the Philadelphia International Airport. I was looking for a change in my career and this opportunity presented itself to me. I had been in government and private, but I have never done non-profit and I was in a stage of my career where I wanted to manage something. It felt as though at the end of the day, Center in the Park would make a bigger difference to be making lives better than selling new air service for the airport. So, I kinda got hooked in that way and been here for 14 years.
How do you feel your past experiences helped you as an executive director at Center in the Park?
I understand how programs and services are delivered. I understand the politics of it, and I think by having that background experience has made me a better advocate so that I can look at the governor’s budget and know how it’s going to impact services and programs for older adults and how it’s going to impact my center. And so I think that’s primarily it, and as well as a very great network of contacts.
How is CIP funded?
There’s money that comes from Washington from the federal government. From the Older Americans Act, that money comes to Harrisburg and Harrisburg puts it together with some state lottery money. And they send it to the counties – and our county, Philadelphia County and Philadelphia Corporation For Aging disperses it. Every county just about has an area agency on aging that gets the government money to contract with the providers in the community. In some counties, the county itself will provide the services. Because we’re sort of independent but we have these contracts, it means that we have to really solidify some stronger sources of funding and funding base to be able to survive long-term because you never know what’s going to happen to the government money.
What have you done since becoming the executive director?
The first thing I did was give us an internet presence because the center did not have a website 14 years ago. So the first thing we did was how to get on the internet because we don’t have a marketing budget because we are non-profit, so it’s hard sometimes to get the word out. The second thing that has changed is our focus on health and wellness. We have our exercise classes and evidence-based health promotion programs. The change is not only what I’ve made, but was driven by what it is the members and participants want to do.
What does CIP offer? How does it help residents in the community?
We have five issue areas we focus on. We have lifelong learning and creative self-expression, which is the typical senior center programs; the knitting the crocheting, the mahjong, those kind of programs. Brain health, health promotion and evidence-based programs. And a leisurely dining experience – that’s the wellness aspect. Social services and housing, so we do have a program with a staff of social workers who work with older adults who are temporarily or situationally home-bound. So they do home visits, they help them connect with resources so they can stay in the community instead of going to a facility. We have housing counselors who help people with foreclosure issues or rental assistance. Now for that program that is federally funded, and we serve people of all ages. So if you came and you had a housing issue or needed energy assistance – as long as you are an adult, we would help you to the extent we have the funding available.
How active are you outside of CIP?
I do some work outside of the center. I am on the board of the National Council on Aging and I am currently chairing the National Institute of Senior Centers. And so that gives me the opportunity to stay on top of trends and also be really engaged in advocating at the federal level as well as for programs and services that benefit older adults. So the kinds of things that I sort of end up doing with my volunteer time really are more related to specific issues, causes or developing the community.
What is your mission for Center in the Park? And where do you see yourself in a few years?
My mission is to to get the center on a stronger financial footing and improve economic development. Next year the center will be 50 and I will be here for 15 years, and I will probably be looking do something completely different.
-Text and images by Sonji Milburn and Brian Roche.