The blueberry-hued Hammonton Canoe Club hummed with chatter as several senior citizens sat around a cluster of tables for conversation.

Annette Horoski, a 77-year-old retired casino worker, said she likes going to the club because there are many activities in the building, such as card games, chess and a Nintendo Wii used for bowling. The boathouse, which is wheelchair-accessible, also has a back porch with rocking chairs and a scenic view of Hammonton Lake.

"It's great to come here and see the people and enjoy," said Horoski, who moved to Hammonton two years ago from Ocean City. The senior citizens provide gifts to the children in the Hammonton Exchange Club for Easter, Halloween and Christmas, Horoski said. Other events include a bus trip and fundraising spaghetti dinner. Horoski said she has met more people at the senior center than in her age-restricted housing complex, the Tradition at Blueberry Ridge.

Mary Henning, a 70-year-old retired cafeteria worker, enjoys the company, too, and she comes every day to help out in the kitchen. "You can come pick up a book and read, and there's always a pot of coffee or a bottle of water. ... We're almost a support group for one another," she said.

The new, two-story senior citizen center opened last September.

Other upgrades to Hammonton Lake Park include a new parking lot and walking trail, a renovated boat ramp and a donated gazebo, Recreation Director Lou Rodio said.

The senior center, which cost about $800,000 to build, is double the size of the old 1,800-square-foot building from the 1960s, Councilman Jerry Barberio said. The cost was split between a state Department of Community Affairs grant and a town bond. The new parking lot cost about $480,000 and most of it was covered by a county open space grant.

The work was part of a larger renovation plan for Hammonton Lake Park and the second phase includes installing two bocce courts, replacing picnic tables and benches, and expanding the parking lot and trails, Barberio said. The town plans to look for an outside company to rent canoes and kayaks at the park on weekends.

"It's a long time coming and we're really focused on trying to get phase two off the ground," Barberio said of the renovations. He and Mayor Steve DiDonato said it will be difficult to continue the park upgrades considering the difficult economy and municipal budget shortfalls. They added that town officials are looking to get more grants to fund the work.

Jim Donio, chairman of the town's grant committee, said their goal is to have all the renovations funded through grants. He said the new senior center fits in well with the park's historical recreational role as a place where people gathered for clean air and water activities dating to the late 1800s.

Rodio said the atmosphere surrounding the new Hammonton Canoe Club is a big change from the old building, which was mainly used to store lifeguard and boating equipment. The upstairs portion - which includes his office - used to be the lake caretaker's apartment, and he rarely saw visitors.

Now, Rodio said, the senior citizens have made the building feel like a home, and the number of volunteers who show up has grown from six to 35 people. Many of the decorations and kitchen equipment are donated by the senior citizens. Representatives from AtlantiCare and the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey in Galloway Township hold informational seminars and the Arc of Atlantic County organize arts and crafts. The club also is open to community service groups who want to use it as a meeting room.

On busy days, the club would have as many as 50 people, and Rodio said more visitors have been coming since spring arrived. "There was a lot of snow and nothing else to do," he said. "People have been coming down and hanging out."

Contact Michelle Lee:


If you go

The Hammonton

Canoe Club, 100 Sports Drive, is open to senior citizens from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Friday. Community service groups also may use the building. For more information, call 609-567-4341.