Don Bosco Senior Center reopened with a mask and vaccination requirement. Photo by Abby Hoover

By Abby Hoover, Managing Editor

After more than a year of empty calendars, phone calls to check on friends, and quiet hallways, Kansas City’s seniors re-emerged to gather at Don Bosco Senior Center on July 20. 

The center, located at 526 Campbell St. in Columbus Park, is a home away from home for many of the Northeast’s elderly residents and adults with disabilities, somewhere they can socialize, get connected with services, and stay active.

Director of Development Ann Van Zee remembers the last day the center was open for meals and activities – Friday, March 13, 2020. 

Leading up to the reopening, Van Zee overheard many phone conversations as staff explained the requirements for returning, how transportation would work, and what to expect. She recognized the excitement and relief in their voices that they could return.

“Just the excitement in their voices and that, ‘Oh gosh, I can see my friends! I can come to Don Bosco, I have some place to go, something to do,’ and hopefully get back to a little bit of somewhat normality,” Van Zee said.

Friends reunite and share updates at the reopening of the Don Bosco Senior Center. Photo by Abby Hoover

Throughout the pandemic, Don Bosco staff was hard at work providing services, hosting a monthly fresh food drive with Harvesters, and delivering Meals on Wheels.

“When we closed due to COVID under the pandemic restrictions, many of our congregate diners – those that normally come here, some of them every weekday, for a hot meal – they were able to receive the Meals on Wheels home delivery if they fell within our delivery area, which most of them do, but we have people who come from all over,” Van Zee said. 

They also continued to deliver to about 150 to 180 home-bound individuals who didn’t come to the center but needed meals. They were averaging 400 to 450 meal deliveries every single day of the pandemic.

The work didn’t slow down, but rather transitioned, as the staff made a lot more phone calls to check in, and fielded calls from seniors with questions ranging from mail they had received to needing personal care items like soap and detergent, or help with groceries.

Don Bosco has built strong partnerships with other agencies in the community, initially grown out of necessity to serve their seniors through COVID-19.

Don Bosco Centers Director Mo Orpin helps a client make calls. Photo by Abby Hoover

“Bishop Sullivan was a big partner with us to get non-perishable groceries to folks,” Van Zee said. “Last year we also did produce boxes and then continued that this spring, so we were delivering bags of fresh produce to seniors, they loved that.”

Mid-American Regional Council (MARC) worked with Don Bosco as a delivery agency for supplemental frozen meals for those who didn’t qualify for Meals on Wheels. They delivered boxes of 10 frozen meals every other week, including staples like milk and bread.

According to MARC guidelines, Don Bosco Senior Center is the largest, most comprehensive provider of senior services in the greater Kansas City metropolitan area.

“We were delivering a lot more than just the meals and a wellness check to our seniors and adults with disabilities,” Van Zee said. “We sent them puzzle books, cards – people would make cards and send them to us and we would get those to the seniors.”

The sense of community that Don Bosco provides to seniors is everything, Van Zee said.

“The other clients, the staff, the volunteers, we’re very much their family,” Van Zee said. “I know talking on the phone isn’t the same as being able to sit down, have lunch with someone, find out how they’re doing, really.”

She said they have many seniors who live alone or just don’t have a regular support system, and it’s an honor to be that for them.

They anticipated around 110 seniors and adults with disabilities to return to the center last Tuesday, and more to return in the days that followed as word spread. The clients were greeted by the Chiefs’ KC Wolf and the Kansas City Royals’ KCrew, and enjoyed violin music from a local musician.

Executive Director Mo Orpin said while the center is reopened, some activities will still not be available, even though a crowd favorite, BINGO, returned. Masks are still required in the center, and social distancing was advised.

“We’ve been talking about doing it for a couple months, but we just wanted to be ultra careful because this group is so vulnerable to COVID-19,” Orpin said. “First, it was just going to be that we were going to do masks and encourage people to get the vaccination if they can… but then with the new spike we’ve been seeing, we thought we better take some more precautions.”

The seniors were required to be vaccinated before returning, and Don Bosco made it easy by providing a vaccine clinic at its community center just down the street in partnership with KC Care Health Center.

Seniors returning to Don Bosco had their temperatures taken and a copy made of their COVID-19 vaccine cards. Photo by Abby Hoover

Vickie Smith, a resident of Indian Mound, has been coming to Don Bosco for at least 20 years, and she was excited to return.

“It was rough, you miss seeing everybody,” Smith said. “I’d call and talk to people some, and they’d bring us stuff, so that helped. It was good having them still. I missed getting down here and visiting with everybody.”

Some of her longtime friends she met at the center passed during the closure, and she dealt with her own health complications, but despite it all, she feels blessed to be back.

“I was always running around visiting everybody and I’m glad to be able to do that again,” Smith said. “They’re so welcoming when we come back.”

James Singleton used to volunteer at the center before COVID, and he’s glad to see the seniors back in the space. He used his time at home to tend to his and his neighbor’s yards and do projects around the house.

“I know everybody here,” Singleton said. “It’s really good for them, it’s good for their heart and it’s good for their mind. It’s good for their whole wellbeing. I’m glad to be back and get out of the house and everything.”

Walkin’ Charlie Aiello was glad to return to Don Bosco Senior Center. Photo by Abby Hoover

Don Bosco recently hired a new client advocate who is bilingual in Spanish, and ​​Mui Bui and his brother act as volunteer Vietnamese translators for many at the center. Bui, a resident of Columbus Park, has been coming to Don Bosco for 10 years, ever since he retired. 

“Most of them, they don’t know English well,” Bui said of his fellow Vietnamese seniors. “So I come here, my purpose is to come here to help my community.”

For anything they need, from help paying bills to getting free meals, Bui assists with translation. Especially around Christmas he helps them with paperwork to get a meal and other holiday assistance.

“I’m grateful to come back,” Bui said. “It’s boring to stay home, you know? The opening is good for everybody.”

Johnny Montoya reads the Northeast News at Don Bosco Senior Center. Photo by Abby Hoover

Johnny Montoya spent the past year riding the bus from the Westside, and up and down Independence Avenue, to do his shopping and get out of the house. He’s looking forward to playing BINGO and reading the Northeast News at the center again.

“I like coming down, I’ve been coming down here since 2014 and I just turned 73 years old last April the 18th,” Montoya said. “It’s a place to come and hang out at, talk to people, keep my mind going instead of getting crazy.”

Barbara French, a retired nurse who used to work at Don Bosco, was excited to return as a volunteer. 

“It’s wonderful, I’ve been calling people to talk with them over the phone, just doing wellness checks, so it’s so good to see them in person,” French said. “The socialization is so key for the elderly, for all of us, to help with depression, loneliness, all those things.”

Donna Goff (left) catches up with friends at Don Bosco Senior Center. Photo by Abby Hoover

Donna Goff knows firsthand that Don Bosco cares about people. She’s been coming for around 15 years, and visits for meals and activities. But more than that, they’ve helped her get dental work and find housing nearby.

“I get so depressed sitting home by myself, and I come down here to socialize and play games and go places,” Goff said. “It’s wonderful. I’ve got a lot of friends here. If I recommend any place to go, it would be Don Bosco.”

Leila Schaefer, an immigrant from Ireland who just celebrated 69 years in the U.S., fund community at Don Bosco. Shortly after she moved to Kansas City, she worked at Katz Drug Store, and raised her family here. She became an American citizen at 57 and went back to school.

Leila Schaefer says she’s blessed to return to Don Bosco. Photo by Abby Hoover

“This is either my fourth or fifth year [at Don Bosco], and I love it here,” Schaefer said. “They’re good people, they take care of you, they talk to you, they treat you as a person, call you by your name. You can’t ask for any more than that.”

Don Bosco Senior Center is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. More info can be found at