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Jim Kenyon: Senior Citizens Council Leader Helps Bridge the Divide

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Sunday, December 24, 2017

Democrats vs. Republicans. Liberals vs. conservatives. Trump loyalists vs. Trump loathers. With political strife swirling all around, it’s encouraging to see at least one Upper Valley cause that people on both sides of the political divide can still get behind.

I’m talking about the Grafton County Senior Citizens Council.

Since the early 1970s, the organization has, among other activities, delivered meals to elderly shut-ins on the county’s back roads and provided rides to seniors who have no way to get to doctor appointments or the grocery store.

It also operates eight senior centers where folks can drop in for lunch (particularly popular among meatloaf lovers), have their blood pressure checked and take a yoga class.

The council can do what it does because over the years it has earned the bipartisan support of local elected officials throughout the county. How often do you hear that these days?

“They see what we do,” said Roberta Berner, the council’s executive director. “They know we’re helping people in their communities.”

Berner, who has been at the organization’s helm for 14 years, is a big reason for its success. This fall, Berner, 65, let the council’s governing board know that she plans to retire in late 2018.

“We’re going to miss her terribly,” said board President Patricia Brady, of Haverhill. “Roberta personifies passion for her job. She cares about the people she serves.”

Berner makes a point of accepting just about every invitation to talk up the council’s work — 200,000 meals, 40,000 rides and 8,000 people served in 2017.

She recently traveled storm-ravaged roads after dark to speak to the Rumney Lions Club, which is not even a financial supporter. Berner saw it as an opportunity to recruit volunteers. She can never have enough Meals on Wheels drivers.

In October, she spent an evening with the town of Bristol’s Budget Committee. Berner asks every city and town in the county (along with Plainfield in Sullivan County) to contribute an annual amount of tax money that reflects how many people the council serves in that community. Local government contributions range from $100 in Waterville Valley to $63,000 in Lebanon.

In Bristol, she sought $8,500. Sitting front and center at the table was a committee member sporting a “Hillary For Prison” T-shirt. It was a cue for Berner not to mention that her husband, state Rep. Richard Abel, is a Lebanon Democrat.

“It doesn’t matter to me what a (public official’s) political perspective is,” Berner told me. “We have seniors who don’t have the money to buy their food for a month. That’s what I worry about.”

“Roberta is absolutely unflappable,” Brady said. “She’s also gracefully assertive when she needs to be.”

Chalk it up to her early training. After college, she was a reporter for her hometown newspaper in Gainesville, Fla. Having put off getting her driver’s license, she covered the police beat on a bicycle.

She moved to Minnesota for graduate school and later left journalism for the nonprofit world. With Abel’s career in book publishing leading them everywhere from Jackson, Miss., to Lebanon, Berner jokingly refers to herself as a “trailing spouse.”

Shortly after the couple and their two children moved to Lebanon in the late 1990s, Berner was hired as the council’s director of marketing and development.

Now, as executive director, she wears many hats, but finding the $3.5 million or so a year that it costs to keep the council in business is where she does most of her heavy lifting.

She learned the importance of cultivating support on both sides of the aisle early on. Bill Gabler, a Grafton County commissioner who prided himself in being a fiscal conservative, turned out to be one of the council’s biggest supporters in the early 2000s.

“He was a staunch Republican,” Berner said, “but he believed in what we did. He’d say, ‘You’re keeping people in their homes and out of nursing homes.’ ”

One evening in early December, I joined Berner on a 45-mile drive to Plymouth, where the senior center was holding a photography exhibit. Berner had secured a $50,000 grant from a Minneapolis-based foundation called Aroha Philanthropies, which focuses on bringing the arts to people 55 and over.

Out of 250 applicants, the council was among 15 nonprofits nationally selected to conduct eight-week classes at its senior centers. With the council trying to broaden its appeal to younger seniors, Berner saw the arts program as an ideal fit.

Last week, a stack of evaluation forms from the classes rested on a table in Berner’s office. She pulled out a form a participant in a choral singing class had submitted.

What did this participant get out of the class at the Upper Valley Senior Center in Lebanon? “I learned to be brave.”

Although Berner has done a stellar job of raising public and private money, “funding has always been a struggle,” she acknowledged.

About 55 percent of the council’s funding comes from the state and federal government. The current political climate in Washington and Concord makes her job tougher at a time when “we’re serving an older population and a poorer population than we used to,” she said.

A 2011 report by the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies warned that the state was facing a “silver tsunami.” By 2030, nearly one-third of the state’s population — roughly 500,000 residents — will be over the age of 65, the report projected.

Northern New Hampshire, which includes Grafton County, is aging more rapidly than the southern part of the state, Berner said.

A search for Berner’s successor starts next month. Whoever gets the job would be smart to follow Berner’s example: Spend many a night driving around Grafton County while leaving your brand of politics at home.

Thousands of seniors will be depending on it.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

Correction

Aroha Philanthropies is based in Minneapolis. An earlier version of this column misidentified where Aroha’s headquarters are located.