Taking the reins

Bolton ready to lead Senior Center into post-COVID world

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As Anthony Zompa retires from his role as director of the Johnston Senior Center after two decades, Matt Bolton is ready to step up and lead the group into a post-pandemic world.

Bolton, 27, graduated from Villanova University in Pennsylvania with a degree in sociology, almost immediately putting it to work at the Cranston Senior Enrichment Center. Last year, he pivoted to a new position at the JSC, where he learned about the community under the tutelage of Zompa and Assistant Director Mildred Santilli.

“I started in January, I think the first day was Jan. 3, and basically from then on Tony had indicated that he was leaning toward retiring and I had an idea that maybe this could be my job, and from the beginning I tried to learn from everyone that I could,” Bolton said during a phone interview Tuesday. “We helped with vaccination rollout through Johnston, helped out through vaccination clinics, so basically anything that I could, I observed.”

Now, Bolton will have the unique challenge of taking over the Senior Center in the absence of both its chief leaders, Zompa and Santilli, who were integral to moving to the new location on Hartford Avenue. Santilli passed away last month at 71.

Bolton said Santilli “couldn’t have been more kind to me” in the brief time they worked together.

“I learned more about the Senior Center and she was willing to offer assistance needed to me,” Bolton said. “She was a really wonderful individual.”

He said Zompa and Santilli were “two great mentors” as he got acclimated to the JSC, lauding the staff as “excellent” and saying he’s confident the center can achieve pre-COVID levels of service. He said the pandemic is the only challenge he sees at the JSC, with operations going smoothly otherwise.

“We started the phased reopening,” Bolton said. “We do offer some classes currently that are outside the building, exercise classes, things like that. Small things in terms of business ideas that are going to be dictated on the COVID timetable, we want to be able to open as soon as possible. I think for it’s doing what I can when the time comes to reopen, to do what I can do to make sure that this place is ready to go. One thing that I’ve learned, it’s the seniors themselves that have always been a priority for the community here.”

He added: “Mayor [Joseph] Polisena’s mentioned that many times. The staff here exhibits the desire to do whatever they can for the seniors.”

Bolton said the center is also offering a meal delivery service, and some more exercise classes will open to members in May. Masking will still be required for the foreseeable future.

“I’m lucky that we have the staff here that we do, a really devoted staff, and I think what makes it important is we know that the place has been a destination in the community before and all of the seniors need in-person communication in their lives,” Bolton said. “I think with COVID, a lot of people eliminated that. It’s something that makes it easier knowing the center, knowing that once we get to the other side of the coronavirus, we can excel at what we do best – helping seniors have a good time from the moment they walk in the door.”

Bolton said he doesn’t see any issues with taking over the center at only 27 years old, saying he brings a “youthful perspective” and could pitch ideas for events or programs that haven’t been implemented before. He said he has learned a great deal from the seniors thus far, reading into what they want to see prioritized once JSC reopens in full.

He said Zompa has been crucial in that learning process, too.

“He has been great,” Bolton said of Zompa. “Every chance he’s had he introduces me to anyone that he can, and he’s always been there for me since I started, in terms of showing me the ropes. And I couldn’t have asked for a better teacher, somebody who’s got the experience. It’s important for me to learn off of that.”

Now, the training is just about complete. Zompa officially hands the reins over to Bolton at the end of the month, and he is eager to serve the seniors who are so zealous to get back to the center they call home.

“Another hat tip to Tony and Millie … they basically laid the groundwork for the place to succeed outside of COVID,” Bolton said. “I don’t see anything holding this senior center back from being the best senior center that it can be and a place that people want to go back to.”

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