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WATSONVILLE— Fridays are dancing days at the Watsonville Senior Center where about 100 people pop in each weekday to be greeted with smiles as if they were home.
“Everybody loves to dance,” says Gloria Betancourt, 71, who has made sure the tables are nicely arranged, the candy is out and the new visitors are meeting the regulars. “All the ladies are dancing with other ladies. Nobody cares.”
On the morning of New Year’s Eve, a party crowd dressed up in sparkling dresses and cowboy hats, dances to music spun by a local DJ. Betancourt is scurrying around making sure things are in place. She is dressed up for a party and waving to friends on the dance floor.
“I invite lot of people to come here and they say, ‘Oh no, I’m not that old,’” Betancourt says. “But, you have to face it. And, they have so much fun.”
A former cannery worker and retail employee, Betancourt has been a key figure at the senior center since she retired in 2013. Officially, she is an assistant to the director working 12 hours a week, but her boss, Valerie Rivera, says Betancourt is often visiting with guests and enjoying the center beyond those few hours.
“She’s an invaluable person to me,” Rivera says. “I wouldn’t be able to do it without her. She’s my right hand. She’s wiling to give you the shirt off her back. She’s that kind.”
The facility serves 60-80 meals weekdays and many more people come in the door for other events, services and classes throughout the week.
Any day of the week Betancourt is busy. She arranges the tables with care, helps with the weekly raffles, a flea market, a bingo game, a snack bar, more dancing, tai chi and the food assistance program. All the while, she is translating into Spanish or English as needed.
But, for Betancourt, maybe her most important job is helping seniors, who are often isolated, feel at home.
“We really care about them,” she says. “It’s like they’re one of our family. We get attached to people.”
At noon on New Year’s Eve day there was a pause in the music as the crowd toasted with donated sparkling cider from Martinelli’s and quickly the dancing started up again.
“If I wasn’t here I’d be volunteering somewhere else,” Betancourt says. “But, this is the best thing that’s happened to me—really—because I love all my people. I really love what I’m doing right now.”
Betancourt has four adult children. She lives in Watsonville with a daughter and three of her nine grandchildren. She also has two great grandchildren. When she is not at the center, she is volunteering year-round at a local elementary school, “keeping an eye on everything that’s going on there,” and serving on the Fiestas Patrias Committee, which plans the Cinco de Mayo and 16 de Septiembre celebrations each year.
You can’t stay home and be depressed up. You have to go up there and give a little love to somebody else.
This article first appeared in the Santa Cruz Sentinel Live It Up Special Section (Winter 2016).