My Turn — Blatchford: Shelburne’s Sylvia Smith a model moderator


Monday, May 07, 2018

For a while I’ve felt as though I’m stuck in a condition of extreme myopia. I see up-close news headlines in big letters everywhere: Government Shutdown Looms! Another School Shooting! Fake News! Monster Storm Advances! It’s hard to find a clear lens through which one can begin to make sense of what looks like ongoing chaos.

For this reason, I was pleasantly surprised when at McCusker’s recently to talk with someone whom the Shelburne Senior Center Public Relations Committee had suggested I meet. I’m on this committee because I want to help our Senior Center get the word out that it’s on a steep, and exciting, growing curve right now. And the person I was directed to talk with is Sylvia Smith, chairwoman of the Senior Center Expansion Committee. Here’s someone who sees the Real News!

I knew before our conversation that Smith has been the town moderator at Shelburne town meetings since 2013. I’d noticed her up on the stage at the table with the selectmen, inviting voting residents to address topics on the warrant — whether budget or financial matters or changes to bylaws — being presented for their consideration. Though I’d never addressed her then, Smith’s patient listening manner had earned my admiration. Occasionally, when meetings ran beyond two hours, I’d imagine an actor with a bright feather in his cap, appearing on the stage in the middle of the deliberations with a cup of tea (or a stiff drink) for this cheery lady with short blonde hair and eye glasses.

I also knew, from a neighbor, who’s known Smith and her husband, Bill, for the 40-plus years they’ve lived in Shelburne, Smith has done an amazing range of jobs. She ran a successful day care center, worked for the 4-H Extension Service, hosted foreign exchange students, was education policy director and chief of staff for the state Senate Education Committee chairman, Senator Robert Antonioni, and worked at the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in the Commissioner’s Office. Not to mention raising three daughters, and now — during the last 12 years — helping with five grandchildren, whom she fondly referred to as “The Munchkins” as we chatted.

When I asked how she became involved in the Senior Center Smith said she was invited, after retiring, to be on the Shelburne Council on Aging. An extensive study was done that showed unprecedented growth in this area’s senior population, indicating that by 2030, 62 percent of the population will be over 50. The need for expansion was obvious — not only in terms of offerings for seniors in the many different stages of being a senior, but specially in terms of where seniors can come together comfortably in large numbers. I was amazed to learn that the present Shelburne Senior Center on Main Street in Shelburne Falls has been servicing an area of 250 square miles and nine towns. And — as I’d already noticed on my own — this building only has one bathroom. When a Senior Center Expansion Committee was formed, Smith was asked to head it and accepted.

Last year, the three towns that support the center — Shelburne, Ashfield and Buckland — all voted at their May meetings to approve the expansion, starting with the formation of a joint fund to which each contributed $15,000. This seed money was used this past year to cover the preliminary expenses of the expansion project, including legal consultation to help determine an ownership model. Professionals also evaluated 20 possible sites.

Smith said there are four subcommittees doing the bulk of the research and making recommendations. They are the Site, Ownership, Funding/Budget and Design Committees. And there’s the PR Committee working to provide coordinated, easy to understand information for all the committees — indeed for anyone and everyone. Concrete examples of this will soon be forthcoming. She believes the seed money approved last year has been very well spent and hopefully — with another infusion in this fund next month — the new site for the center will be identified soon and the way ahead mapped out.

The pleasant surprise I experienced when talking with Smith came from the coherent picture she presented of the needs of our growing senior center. How good it felt — after constantly listening to so much confusing national news — to have my attention drawn to the immediate needs, possibilities and capabilities right where we live. When we come together for a common purpose anything can happen.

Smith is truly a moderator on many levels with the ability to see what needs to be done. We are fortunate to have someone already in place with such a wide range of experiences and such dedication and optimism. For those who live in Ashfield, Buckland and Shelburne, please be sure to attend your town meeting in May and vote for the next step for this Expansion Committee.

As Smith said when we parted, “Stay tuned!”

Claire Claire is a retired teacher and lives in Shelburne.