BY RODOLFO ROMAN
Special to The Miami Herald
Almost every morning, Manuel Rodriguez takes the bus downtown along with the rush of commuters. But Rodriguez isn’t headed to work — he’s headed to the First United Methodist Church of Miami’s community center.
For the past 25 years, Rodriguez, 87, has attended the Methodist community center’s Senior Hot Meals Program, where more than 100 senior citizens enjoy healthy foods and activities like, yoga, dominoes, and lots of dancing.
“I feel happy with the program because it has been magnificent for me,” said Rodriguez, who retired to Miami after working as a nurse in San Franciso.
“The food is always fresh here.”
The county-run program has been around for about 30 years at the First United Methodist Church of Miami, 400 Biscayne Blvd.
Senior citizens from across Miami-Dade County attend the program from 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Thursday, as well as Saturday. Individuals over 60 are welcome. A one dollar donation is recommended, but not required.
Rodriguez said he enjoys making new friends and hitting the dance floor at the church’s Fellowship Hall.
“We have a table full of friends, where we talk about everything from family to politics,” said Rodriguez, who asked to dance to Latin singer Elvis Crespos, Suavemente. “I ask for music when things get quiet to feel the happiness, and then I take out the ladies to dance,” he said.
Program Director Nuvia La Riva has worked with the senior citizens for six years. She said the job feels like a hobby.
“I was raised by my grandparents, so I am used to this ambience,” La Riva said. “They are part of my life.”
La Riva has help from Chef Raul Abuchaibe, who cooks everything from arroz con pollo to barbecue ribs. On an average day, he serves about 60 plates. The program also counts on about seven volunteers.
“This is so great because we work, but we are also serving the community,” Abuchaibe said. “These are people who are lonely so we need to keep them entertained and loved.”
Throughout the day, seniors enjoy a toast and coffee for breakfast along with a fruit for a midday snack. Lunch varies, but needs to follow the guidelines of a menu set by the county. Each afternoon meal includes a meat, bread, vegetables, salad, and a fruit.
Publix donates some food, though organizers purchase the majority of the food from The Daily Bread Food Bank.
Miami Beach resident Belle Thweny, 87, says the program is a learning ground.
“This is wonderful to learn from people from all over the world,” said Thweny, who has attended the program for about 30 years. “We learn the way they eat, speak and their style.”
There’s also bingo and raffles, exercises, and information on nutrition and healthy living offered by county officials. In the past, members have been on field trips to Miami Seaquarium and Jungle Island.
But budget constraints mean no more field trips in the near future. La Riva says help is welcome.
“We need economical help,” she said. “We are very economically tight.”
Church Pastor Cynthia D. Weems says the program is much needed.
“Our church believes there is an even greater need now than ever before for programs such as Senior Hot Meals,” said Weems.
La Riva says she feels part of one big family.
“They manifest a lot of love, since they need it,” she said.