By Aaron Retherford
There was cake. There was singing and dancing. There was even director Dee Rollins, wearing a sparkly, green birthday hat. But more importantly there were dozens of smiles as Project Independence celebrated its 40th birthday and the one-year anniversary of its merger with Gifford Retirement Community last Thursday afternoon.
What Project Independence has accomplished, serving over 2,200 individuals ranging from 18 to 101 years of age from Washington and northern Orange counties during the 40 years, is remarkable.
However, having a partner in Gifford for the past year has added a bit of pep to Rollins’ step. It even meant she didn’t have to cancel a trip to visit her family in Florida. For the director of 10 years, who has donned about 18 different “hats”—including as cook and snow shoveler—finally having support was a strange but welcome change.
That support became almost immediately evident as Rollins retold a story for those in attendance Thursday about a fire that broke out in the furnace room of PI about two and a half months after the merger with Gifford. As an independent business on what Rollins described as an “island”, she said the facility would have been closed for two weeks. Instead, with Gifford’s help, PI was only closed two days.
“So the merger with Gifford has meant we have a bigger partner in healthcare. Otherwise, adult days, we’re just all alone,” Rollins said.
Rollins said the partnership with Gifford has meant much more support and resources because as an Adult Day Care Center, Project Independence was only certified and not licensed, preventing it from receiving Medicaid money up front.
Prior to the merger, PI only brought in revenue when clients were in the building. If they were out sick, Project Independence wouldn’t get paid, making it difficult to run the business due to a lack of predictability.
Also, now there are multiple departments to handle the various issues that might arise.
As a social and medical model, PI goes beyond what a typical senior center can provide. Project Independence handles medicine management, sometimes helping clients use the bathroom or shower, and even will do their laundry.
“We keep people out of nursing homes,” Rollins said. “We’ve had kids call us and say ‘my mom has been home alone for 3 years. It got so bad when I went over there, we could never have a conversation because she didn’t have anything to say. I didn’t know how to get a smile on her face. After two weeks of coming to Project Independence, we’re having a conversation. She’s folding laundry.’
“They all love doing chores. They feel like they’re volunteering and most of the time they are. It’s a place where they really help one another.”
Through Gifford, PI now has access to more caregiver training and support in order to help prevent caregiver burnout.
PI feeds clients breakfast, a hearty lunch and a snack every day.
“It’s a happy place. We get to serve these people, who enrich our lives every day,” Rollins said.
Steve Martin, a retired teacher and now part-time bus driver with GMTA who helps transport clients to and from Project Independence, certainly agrees.
“It’s a lot of fun. Personally, it’s rewarding. It’s kind of like me giving back to the community,” he said. “I enjoy the staff especially. They are top notch. For them to have careers to support the elderly and disabled is remarkable. They certainly should be applauded for what they do, and I guess I’m just doing a small part of the same kind of service to give to those people.”
Project Independence, located at 81 North Main St, Suite 1 in Barre, is open five days a week from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. To learn more about the activities and services offered, check out Project Independence’s website at https://www.pibarre.org/.