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Ongoing senior divide

Time to stop blaming Colrain

The evolution of the Shelburne Senior Center from its humble beginnings in the early 1970s as a federally funded meal site and drop-in center to its present form is a story of West County.

This region of the state is unique in that as far back as 1860 — with the founding of Arms Academy as a regional school district — ties throughout the area have run long and deep, blurring town boundaries. The only West County senior housing is Highland Village, located in Shelburne. Some lifelong residents end up out of West County when they downsize housing, and the senior center is where they were able to meet up with lifelong friends.

When former director Jamie Godfrey was hired, he embarked on the development of a long-range strategic plan “To Grow in Wisdom.” At the same time, out-of-“consortium” residents were being excluded from programming; complaints about the atmosphere of the center were rising; and favorite programs, such as the morning coffee drop-in, were stopped. It was at this time the center closed on Fridays, with the staff “available by phone,” although there was no reduction in salaries for this diminished level of service.

The discussions surrounding the strategic plan began a period of deep division in the senior community that continues to this day. On careful review of the full plan, it seemed to the Colrain’s Council on Aging that what was envisioned was an umbrella group of paid staff serving as an advisory group located in an office space separate from any seniors. Remote centers, located in the four “consortium” towns and staffed by volunteers, would be paid for with funding over and above current assessments.

In FY 2012 (Colrain’s last participating year), approximately $260,000 from the four-town assessments and public and private grants was available to fund the senior center. Of that amount, 82.63 percent went for staff salaries and benefits, 9.27 percent went for facilities and maintenance, and 1.7 percent went to operating expenses. That left 6.4 percent for all other expenses, including specific grant-funded programs and services. Salaries and benefits are primarily for three positions — the executive director, the activities director and the outreach and transportation coordinator.

By 2011, the Colrain Council on Aging realized the Shelburne Senior Center was unsustainable and seniors wanted and needed social activities and programs. These are the only reasons we recommended withdrawing from the four-town agreement. We knew our decision would be unpopular to some and misrepresented often.

We have experienced repercussions and mean-spirited reprisals on many fronts. We also hear the constant lament “Since (or Because) Colrain left …”

Unfortunately, the contention has now carried over into the “Friends of West County Seniors Inc.” Since its formation in 1981, this group of mostly local people put tremendous effort into fundraising events to support senior center programming. In recent years, these funds were tapped, among other things, to make up shortfalls in the operating budget. When Colrain opted out of the four-town agreement, a handful of new “Friends” members, who are lacking historical knowledge of the organization, and are, for the most part, new to the area, decided Colrain had no right to any of the friends’ funds. When I accessed the original articles of organization, I discovered the intent was to provide funding to the four towns “and other areas of West County.” The original document was amended July 20, 2012 to clarify this purpose.

The latest in this terribly divisive environment was the “packing” of the January 2013 Friends meeting. Five “friends” members, who also sit on the Shelburne Senior Center board of directors, voted to grant $10,640 to the senior center to make up budget shortfalls in the center’s operating expenses for FY 2014. Directly benefitting residents from Ashfield, Buckland and Shelburne, this vote perpetuates the exclusion of residents from other towns.

The ethics of senior center board members voting on an issue that directly benefits their organization are questionable at best.

Meanwhile, the Colrain Council on Aging is finding its way. Our monthly luncheons are popular, consistently serving over 80 meals to West County seniors. We provide entertainment and programming, host a foot clinic and subsidize trips and outings for our residents. Our COA is open to expanding the level of services offered, and is working on establishing a subsidized volunteer med-ride program. We love to hear ideas for programming, and really enjoy seeing friends from all over socialize and share a meal at the Colrain Community Church the second Wednesday of each month. Maybe it’s time for Ashfield, Buckland and Shelburne COAs to realize they must effectively evaluate their status quo and stop singling out and blaming Colrain for their problems.

Bing Waldsmith is treasurer of the Colrain Council on Aging.

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