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Orange scrambles to extend elder outreach

ORANGE — Officials are scrambling to find grant funding to continue the elder outreach program due to close next month, but so far, there are no sure bets. And many residents don’t want to gamble on losing a program that has helped hundreds of seniors and disabled residents access services and programs they need.

Over 100 residents have already signed a petition requesting the town to pay for the services they say are critical to Orange’s growing population of elders.

Petition organizers Kim Marshall, Bonnie Bradshaw and Barbara Sweeney say that’s just a fraction of the 500 signatures they hope to get in their effort to save a program that sends Outreach Worker Tracy Gaudette into the homes of Orange seniors, helping them cut through red tape to access insurance and government-funded financial assistance to which they are entitled.

“She helped me get services I didn’t even know were out there,” said Fran Murphy, one of a dozen people who showed up at a public hearing a couple of weeks ago to voice interest in using Community Development Block Grant money to continue the program.

Karl Bittenbender, who volunteers as the Interim Community Development Director, told selectmen on Wednesday that he is unsure whether CDBG money can be used to fund the outreach program. Bittenbender said he will continue to research that question as well as other potential grants to keep the program going.

But Marshall, Bradshaw and Sweeney are not waiting around. All three women have elderly parents who were helped through the program.

As selectmen discussed other ways to use the CDBG money on Wednesday night, Bradshaw, Marshall and Sweeney met at Dunkin’ Donuts across town, developing their campaign to fund Gaudette’s salary through the town’s budget rather than less-stable grant money.

Bradshaw said the $30,000 needed to fund Gaudette’s annual salary “is nothing and she’s invaluable to the community.” She added that Gaudette’s willingness to work 80 hours a week for 19 hours of pay has won the respect of the town’s elders.

“I’ve never seen someone so revered and she’s earned every drop of it,” said Bradshaw.

“It’s unbelievable the level of service she provides,” Marshall agreed.

Gaudette helped Marshall’s mother access fuel assistance and veteran’s benefits after her father’s sudden death a few years ago left her mom “in terrible shape.”

According to Marshall, Gaudette’s willingness to come over to her mother’s house whenever problems arose was very reassuring to her mother, who was struggling with health issues that left her “fairly immobile … Tracy told her everything would be all right and it was.”

Bradshaw added Gaudette’s assistance “reaches out well past Orange” as she helps relatives of the town’s elders access services as well, even if they live in another town.

According to Gaudette, many elders act as caregivers despite their own health problems. Her efforts to assist extended family members battle red tape of government programs can significantly lessen stresses for senior citizens in Orange. “The way I see it, I’m helping the welfare of the elders here who often are caregivers of family members” in other towns.

And Marshall said Gaudette continues to check in on her mother, even though it has been years since she helped her access services. Gaudette acknowledged she pays regular visits to many elders around town she has worked with over the years.

In anticipation of the program’s end, Gaudette has taken another job outside of town. But she continues to work as many hours as she can at night and on weekends, visiting elders in the senior center at the Armory and in their homes.

With the help of volunteers, Pauline Alldred and Donna Killay, she plans to continue helping seniors until the end of December when current grant funding through Fallon Community Health Plan ends.

According to Gaudette, she would quickly return to the outreach program if it was funded next year. “I decided when I took the outreach program I was going to give it my all or nothing. … This program is my baby.”

Marshall said residents interested in supporting the continuation of the outreach program can add their signatures to the petition sheets at Jumptown and Millers River Cafe.

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