Sunday Seniors: Honoring Grafton’s Senior Citizens Council Director

  • Roberta Berner speaks to a crowd during a celebration on Thursday for her retirement from her role as executive director of the Grafton County Senior Citizens Council in Lebanon. (Valley News — Liz Sauchelli)

Valley News Calendar Editor
Saturday, September 08, 2018

Lebanon — At the end of a retirement ceremony where numerous accolades were bestowed on Roberta Berner for her 15 years of service as executive director of the Grafton County Senior Citizens Council, Berner said a few words of her own.

“I feel as if everyone in this room is my friend,” she said to the crowd at Upper Valley Senior Center.

Dozens of those friends gathered to honor Berner’s work as an advocate for senior citizens in Grafton County and gave her a standing ovation after she spoke.

And they were applauding Berner for being a friend in return, a steadying hand. And that is one of the reasons I was there to contribute to the applause.

When we launched the Sunday Seniors column last year, Berner connected me to the many people who assist senior citizens in the Upper Valley. She was always available to talk about the topics that matter to seniors in the area and the work that is being done to address those needs.

“Roberta has been such a force,” said Ellen Flaherty, a council board member and co-director of the Dartmouth Centers for Health and Aging. “She really worked tirelessly for people in Grafton County and beyond.”

Berner’s touch extended to each of the eight senior centers in the county, which she regularly visited and advocated for at town budget hearings. Her presence was a show of support for the importance of the programs that the council supported: Meals on Wheels and congregant meals, health clinics, exercise classes, art workshops and the social gatherings that are crucial to aging adults.

Photographs line a wall of the senior center in Lebanon, taken by seniors enrolled in a course for which Berner secured grant funding. Berner understood that healthy seniors require more than their basic needs met to have a full life. So much of what Berner did was building and strengthening those community connections.

When we think of advocacy, we often think of the public displays: the groups that meet to protest, the banners waving in front of homes, the bumper stickers on cars. Advocacy can also include grant writing, personal conversations with community members or sitting at an hourslong budget meeting to do what she could to insure that not a single dollar is taken from programs for older adults.

“I think Roberta personifies what it means to be a giving person,” said board member Patricia Grady. “A core aspect of Roberta is her resilience.”

Grady noted that Berner steered the council through trying financial times, always putting the people who use its services first.

Throughout the gathering, a crowd surrounded Berner, many eager to give her hug and thank her for her work. Her husband, Richard Abel, a Democratic state representative and the couple’s two adult children were nearby.

She was honored by of both county and state proclamations.

Berner was lauded as a problem solver, a hardworker, a strong coordinator, a creative communicator and an optimist.

“Everybody knows Roberta,” said Lebanon mayor Sue Prentiss. “In terms of an advocacy role model, you are mine.”

As the accolades from the speakers continued to pile up, Berner sat in a rocking chair off to the side of the podium, smiling and taking the whole scene in.

When it was her turn to speak, true to form, she said a few words and credited the staff at every senior center in Grafton County with making her work at the council successful.

After the ceremony concluded, I asked Berner what she was most proud of.

“The community connections. I really love the people,” she responded.

How do you honor someone’s good work? You build on what she’s done and keep moving it forward. You take what you’ve learned by the example she set and the love in her heart for all the seniors she comes in contact with. You pick up the reins of that behind-the-scenes advocacy and do your part to improve the lives of senior citizens.

In short, you think of the people you serve and work with as friends and treat them as such, never losing sight that every small bit of work you do is part of something greater than itself. Berner exhibited that in tenfold and her impact will be felt for years to come at the Grafton County Senior Citizens Council.

Editor’s note: Kathleen Vasconcelos is the new executive director and Berner will remain at the council in a part-time role. Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.