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Gorman reappointed, talks about services during the pandemic

Tina Gorman, executive director of the Westfield Council on Aging (THE WESTFIELD NEWS PHOTO)

WESTFIELD – During the May 21 City Council meeting, Personnel Action Committee Chair Cindy C. Harris made a motion to suspend the rules for immediate consideration of the reappointment of Christine Gorman as the executive director of the Council of Aging through 2023, bringing high praise and a unanimous vote from Councilors.

Gorman has served as director of the COA for 14 years.

Harris said that the Senior Center under Gorman’s direction is a lifeline for elder services. She said besides offering social connections, pool, chess and reading clubs, their services extend to self care and fire prevention.

Harris said Gorman didn’t miss a beat in figuring out how to help the hundreds of seniors who were literally shut off because of the pandemic. “Many rely on this place heavily,” she said, adding that Gorman and her outstanding staff immediately started a drive up lunch program as a way to offer food security, and also to check in on the seniors who would stop to chat for a few minutes in line.

Gorman and her staff also make phone calls to make sure everybody is safe, and often hear how upset people are when their friends and loved ones pass away with no closure, according to Harris.

With the assistance of Media Systems Specialist Peter Cowles, Gorman has also set up a series of programs on community television geared to seniors, and continues her weekly radio program on issues specifically affecting this population.

Prior to the closure, Gorman had expanded services and programs offered at the Council on Aging, such as the Companion Program. She arranged for lockbox access to emergency services for seniors at risk, and also for a safety police officer to be housed at the center, one of the first such programs in the Commonwealth.

Harris said other programs Gorman has implemented through grants have included diabetes support, AARP Tax Assistance which helps 500 adults, genealogy, and a theater group. Gorman has served as the regional representative for the Massachusetts Council on Aging advisory board since 2008.

“I can’t think of a better person for this position than Tina. I fully support her reappointment,” said Ward 2 Councilor Ralph J. Figy, who serves as COA liaison.

At-large Councilor James Adams said he has been working with Gorman for many years. “This is a great example of adding a great person in her position and not having a building. When we provided her the building, our Senior Center is now the best in any town, because of the building and its director,” he said.

“She certainly goes above and beyond to serve the seniors and everyone in the community. I’m so happy to vote tonight in favor of her appointment,” said Ward 1 Councilor Nicholas J. Morganelli, Jr.

At-large Councilor Kristen Mello said she knows Gorman mostly through her work during the coronavirus situation. “I’m super happy the way she has stepped up for her seniors. She filled needs and found resources.. And didn’t miss a beat. We’re really lucky to have her.”
Ward 5 Councilor John J. Beltrandi, III, who was serving as president pro temp at the Council meeting said he has been a liaison to the Senior Center a couple of times and agreed with all of the councilors, before the unanimous vote was cast.

“I’m very grateful for the opportunity to continue with the work we’re doing,” Gorman said after the meeting, adding that before COVID hit, she was in the process of working with the Council on Aging Board of Directors on a three-year plan. She said they had some ideas going forward with issues they wanted to tackle, and had two committees working on it.

“COVID-19 threw everything out of kilter. RIght now, more than ever, I’m happy to be reappointed,” Gorman said. She said during this time of crisis, being able to have the stability of a long-term director is important.

Gorman said the current health crisis has been a challenge for many of the seniors. “They’ve lost loved ones, spouses, friends. We’ve lost volunteers, they’ve lost siblings. The ones we see regularly going through the food line are sheltering in place; that’s their one time out. They’re feeling the isolation. We have made over 500 phone calls; friendly chats, just to check in on them,” she said.

She said when they see that someone is really struggling, they have Joanne Ortegas, Outreach Coordinator do some crisis intervention with them.

Gorman said they are taking directives from the Executive Office of Elder Affairs and the Massachusetts Association of the Councils on Aging on weekly conference calls, and with the Western Mass coalition every other week

Gorman said seniors centers across the Commonwealth will be the last to open. “We have the most vulnerable population, The state keeps telling us to remind our seniors, although the Senior Center is closed, Council on Aging services are not. We’ve provided them all along.”

Brown Bag Coordinator Karen Noblit gets assistance from the COA Building Maintenance Craftsman, Alex Hibert and Veterans Services Director Julie Barnes. (TINA GORMAN PHOTO)

Services continuing include benefits counseling, SNAP applications, fuel assistance, and the medical equipment loan program. Gorman said the lunch program is a big program, averaging over 100 meals a day, reaching a high of 150, which is as much as they can handle. The meals are all prepared by staff, no volunteers, the vast majority of whom are older adults. “I don’t have a full staff right now, some of whom are older adults,” she said, adding, “One way or the other, many of us are considered to be at risk.”

“I think the hopeful piece of it is the staff that I have is incredible,” Gorman said. She said they have pulled it out under the current circumstances, adding creative programming on Channel 15 with positive feedback from the seniors, and have kept in contact with them.

“We have a pretty good handle on where they are. Older adults a;re a resilient group. They’ve been through wars, and the highs and lows of economics. They’ll come out standing on their feet. They’re robust and hearty, and they’ll pull through. As challenging as this is for them, they have positive attitudes, and are very much appreciative of what we do for them,” Gorman said.

She also said the crisis has given the directors at the center some new skills that they will be able to utilize down the road.

As for the positive feedback from the City Council during the meeting, Gorman said, “I’m feeling the love.”

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