Cuts finish off Neighbor to Neighbor program for seniors

By:  Eric Blaisdell

BARRE — This year’s federal budget cuts are causing the Central Vermont Council on Aging to end a popular program that helped seniors keep living at home, but the agency says it hopes to continue offering some of the services.

Beth Stern, executive director of the council, said the agency will be stopping its Neighbor to Neighbor AmeriCorps program at the end of September because of a decrease in funding. For 16 years, the program has provided older Vermonters services such as transportation and housecleaning and activities like tai chi and yoga.

“That really helped people stay at home and be independent. If you can’t stack your wood or if you can’t shovel your sidewalks or if you need help getting to the grocery store in order to stay home, Neighbor to Neighbor members would either do that or find volunteers to do that for people,” Stern said.

The central Vermont agency had been hiring about half a dozen members of the AmeriCorps national service program for 11-month terms to do the work necessary for seniors and to recruit volunteers to help. The members would also lead healthy aging and exercise classes in churches and senior centers around central Vermont.

Sarah Semler, the member coordinator for the Neighbor to Neighbor program for the council, said she was devastated when she heard the program was ending. She said the AmeriCorps members were also upset.

“Because they were so vital to the lives of so many elders in the community, it was really hard for them to imagine the program ending. Because they were so hands-on and seeing what people needed on a daily basis,” she said.

Stern said the program has been losing funding for years. When an agency starts an AmeriCorps program, she said, every year thereafter the money it receives is reduced with the expectation that the agency will kick in more to keep it funded.

Stern said the program has been walking a fine financial line for the past few years but that this year’s federal cuts, known as sequestration, were the final straw. She said her agency partners with others doing similar work around the state in order to keep certain programs going but that after sequestration those partners channeled their money into other programs for seniors and cut ties with the Neighbor to Neighbor program.

But it’s not all bad news. Stern said the agency is in talks with the state to keep receiving the state funding that was going to the program so the agency can still offer some services to seniors.

“I’m fairly positive that we are going to be able to keep this funding within the network so that we’ll be able to develop a more localized response to this, rather than one that is more federally mandated,” Stern said.

While losing the federal funding because the program is shutting down is a blow, Stern said that money came with rules and mandates that limited how it could be spent and directed the kind of services the agency could offer, regardless of what a specific region needed for its senior population. Now she hopes state funding can be used in a more targeted way without all the bureaucracy.

“That’s the silver lining we’re trying to get out of this,” she said. “It’s sad that the program is ending, and maybe we can work with that to create something that works for our region.”

Stern said the agency will have to move toward using volunteers exclusively without the federal funding that paid for the AmeriCorps members but that this could also be a blessing in disguise. Stern said that while the members work with seniors for a only year or two before moving on in their careers, she hopes the volunteers the council can drum up will give a more long-term commitment.