Good Neighbor Ernest “Chuck” Ayala: Center of Love for a City's Seniors

At 82, Ernest (Chuck) Ayala is old enough to be a client at Centro Latino de San Francisco. But Ayala is the founder of the center, which provides low-income seniors with meals, transportation, bilingual assistance, and health assessments.

November 1, 2006

At 82, Ernest (Chuck) Ayala is old enough to be a client at Centro Latino de San Francisco. But Ayala is the founder of the center, which provides low-income seniors with meals, transportation, bilingual assistance, and health assessments.

“The center is my commitment and passion,” says Ayala, broker-owner of Ayala Real Estate in San Francisco. “It started 33 years ago as a once-a-week lunch program. We now feed more than 2,100 seniors each year and have a full community center.”

Centro Latino’s mission is to help the elderly obtain the economic and social support they need so that they can function independently and live with dignity, says Ayala. “The Latino population in the Mission District was underrepresented and underserved. And we don’t serve only Latinos. Many nationalities come to us for meals.”

One of the services Centro Latino offers is helping seniors become citizens. “I love to see seniors get their U.S. citizenship. We have a big party; they cry,” says Ayala.

Many years ago, his mother decided to become a citizen as a result of her participation in a senior center. That experience inspired Centro Latino. “I saw how a community-based center could provide services for seniors,” he says.

No one knows the kindness of Ayala like Donald Hall, who worked for Ayala in 1984. “Chuck was, and still is, very dedicated to the biblical mandates of ‘service to all humanity,’ ‘love thy neighbor as thyself,’ and ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’—traits that are taught as the highest and best way of living,” says Hall, a 62-year-old disabled senior. “He’s never boastful. If you want to know what good works Chuck is up to, you have to observe carefully and ask questions.”

Last year, Hall was living in Arizona and in ill health. “I needed to move back to San Francisco and get a decent room, so I tracked down Chuck,” says Hall. “When I got to San Francisco, Chuck and Centro Latino sent me hot meals every day. They offered me rides where I needed to go. They advised me on how I could qualify for a Social Security supplement and how to get medical insurance. Chuck’s desire to help me possibly saved my life,” says Hall, who suffers from pulmonary disease.

“There are so many instances of his kindness,” says the center’s executive director, Gloria Bonilla, who has known Ayala for 27 years. “He provides tutoring and one-on-one counseling so that anyone can succeed,” she says. “He’s always willing to give someone the benefit of a doubt. He realizes that some individuals are more gifted than others. But he genuinely feels everyone has the capacity to learn.”

Centro Latino is like home to many, says Bonilla. And seniors don’t just benefit from the center; they work there too. One man in his late 70s comes to the center to sweep floors and wash dishes, Ayala says. “His wife always comes with him, and now that his son is a senior, he also volunteers.”

At this stage in his life, Ayala has stepped back from some of the day-to-day operations of the center. However, he’s still president and CEO of the board and volunteers about 20 hours a week. “I write proposals to foundations to [help] retire our $338,000 mortgage debt. And I’m constantly visiting the center.” He also helps develop new programs and organize the annual Irish-Mexican Cinco de Mayo fund-raiser, which was started in 2000 and raises about $10,000 a year.

Ayala’s advocacy for seniors extends beyond the center. He has served on the California Commission on Aging for six years—chairing a transportation subcommittee that discussed disaster preparedness for adults living in long-term care facilities—and was appointed twice to the White House Conference on Aging. But the senior center continues to be his main focus. “Centro Latino is a home to many,” says Ayala. “Mi casa es su casa—that’s what it represents. It’s a sanctuary for seniors and immigrants.”

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