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Senior outreach on the line tonight in Orange

ORANGE – The Senior Outreach Program may get a jumpstart this month if residents approve the funding requests of town officials at the special town meeting today.

The program, which ran out of grant funding last month, 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 they are entitled to.

At the meeting, selectmen will request $5,000 be transferred from surplus to the Council on Aging to fund the program. The request falls far short of a $30,000 request for town funds to keep the program as stated in a petition signed by about 100 residents. The petition was delivered to Town Administrator Diana Schindler by several residents last month.

Schindler agreed that senior outreach is critical to meet the needs of the town’s growing elderly population. She added that voters and officials must also balance the need to maintain a healthy amount of surplus. The town is still recovering from fiscal crises that led to deep cuts in services and a dangerously low surplus to cover emergencies, she said.

But after discussing the issue at their Monday meeting, Finance Committee members decided the program required more funding to stabilize services to seniors and disabled residents. According to Finance Committee Member Linda Smith, the committee will move on the town floor tonight that the selectmen’s $5,000 request be increased to $10,000.

“Every year we slight our senior citizens,” said Smith. “The Finance Committee felt we should be putting more money into funding our elder outreach worker.”

Smith said Gaudette helped her own mother sort out which insurance and services were most beneficial when her coverage changed. “She has knowledge about services the average person doesn’t have, but she helps out on so many other issues too … she is there to support seniors when they need it most.”

Smith added that neither Schindler nor Selectman Kathy Reinig, who were both present at the committee meeting, voiced opposition to the plan to double the selectmen’s request.

A dozen residents turned out to a public hearing this fall to voice their support of the program by using next year’s federal Community Development grant to fund Gaudette’s position. Volunteer interim Community Development Director Karl Bittenbender said that while he understood the need for continuing the outreach program, block grant money could not be used for that purpose, as Gaudette’s salary was initially funded by CDBG.

Kim Marshall, one of petition organizers, said that if approved, the $10,000 transfer will fund Gaudette’s return to the position part-time.

Marshall said officials urge her and others voicing support of funding the Senior Outreach Program to “separate the person from the position.” Marshall said that while she agrees “we are trying to fund a position not a particular person,” for the town’s seniors, such a separation is impossible. “Tracy is synonymous with the Senior Outreach Program.”

Marshall said that Gaudette earned the trust of seniors through her committed service, visiting seniors in their homes and continuing to check in on elders many years after she officially worked with them.

As the end of grant funding drew closer this fall, Gaudette was forced to take another position, but continued to work in the program. According to Marshall, while the grant paid for 19 hours of her time, she often logged several times that, up to 80 hours per week, completing mountains of paperwork and visiting seniors in her free time.

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