Kittay House teens dedicated to seniors

Margo Rice, 91, and Luz Lara, 18, are fast friends. The SUNY Albany sophomore recently taught the one-time ballroom queen how to bachata. Photo by Daniel Beekman

Luz Lara and Matt Gonzalez are a high-powered pair. Lara, 18, has pledged to a business sorority at SUNY Albany; the Kingsbridge-born sophomore is bilingual. Gonzalez, 17, will start at Brandeis University in September; the Morris Park-born history buff won a full-tuition scholarship.

You’d expect to find Lara at a party on Saturday.

You’d expect to find Gonzalez at a baseball game.

You’d expect to find Lara and Gonzalez in motion.

Instead, look for Lara at the Kittay House café. Look for Gonzalez in the Kittay House computer lab. Both are volunteers.

“Kittay House changes you,” Lara said. “You discover your passion here.”

Kittay House, a 295-unit Mitchell Lama housing development for older adults, sits on the Webb Avenue campus of Jewish Home Lifecare. It offers restaurant-style meals, a library, a beauty parlor and a spate of recreational opportunities.

Lara landed a volunteer job at Jewish Home Lifecare as a high school junior and parlayed that gig into a Zell Fellowship at Kittay House. Zell Fellows earn a minimum-wage stipend.

Lara returned to volunteer at Kittay after a year at SUNY Albany; she loves to spend time with Margo Rice, 91. Lara and Rice meet at the Kittay House café to eat breakfast and dish on boys, school and music.

Born on the Lower East Side, Rice is a dancing-machine who turned heads at the Roseland Ballroom years ago. She recently demanded, after listening to Lara’s iPod, that the college student teach her how to bachata. Rice painted a portrait of Lara, who she describes as “warm, interested and wonderful.”

“We chill together,” Rice said.

Lara wants to work with seniors for the rest of her life. In fact, she hopes to one day take over as the director of Kittay House.

“A lot of people from “the hood” complain that we’re born into misery,” Lara said. “But there are always opportunities.”

Gonzalez’ mother works at Kittay House. It sounded like fun, Gonzalez said. Also a Zell fellow, he has forged a bond with two extraordinary seniors – Sidney Kronish, 97, and Edna Nelkin, 91. Gonzalez is a computer whiz and a patient soul. He taught Kronish, a retired economics professor and World War I veteran, how to research online, and Nelkin, a retired author, how to use email. Kronish offered Gonzalez a one-on-one lecture series. Nelkin, a Brandeis grad, plans to email with Gonzalez when he heads to Massachusetts.

“Sidney is my buddy,” Gonzalez said. “He tells the best stories.”

Kronish and Nelkin nudged Gonzalez to try Brandeis.

“If Matt’s willingness to learn and his readiness to listen are any guide, he’ll do very well,” Kronish said.

Lara has a grandmother in the Dominican Republic. Gonzalez’ grandfather only speaks Spanish.

At Kittay House, Lara and Gonzalez has gained 300 surrogate grandparents, director Arlene Richman said.

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