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Business of Aging

And the Road to Recovery Program Needs More of Them

Ray Bishop, left, with cancer patient Norman Clarke, says volunteers helped him overcome illiteracy, and this inspired him to be part of the Road to Recovery program.

When asked how he came to participate in the American Cancer Society’s Road to Recovery program, which recruits volunteers to drive cancer patients to medical appointments, Ray Bishop was more than ready to answer that question.

He grabbed a book he had with him and quickly pointed to a passage within it while explaining that, 20 years ago, he couldn’t have read it — because he was essentially illiterate.

With help from literacy volunteers, he was able to put that embarrassing problem — one that he somehow managed to hide from others — behind him. Those volunteers gave him a precious gift, he said, but also something more, the firm desire to pay that kindness forward.

“If volunteers can help me, then I can volunteer to help others — that was my thinking,” said Bishop, as he talked with BusinessWest in the waiting room at the Sister Caritas Cancer Center at Mercy Medical Center. He was there with Norman Clarke, a West Springfield resident he has driven to that facility several times over the past year or so.

Now battling stage-4 cancer that has spread from his gallbladder to his liver, Clarke says he will go on fighting the disease, through aggressive chemotherapy treatments “that won’t stop until I tell them I can’t take it anymore.”

To fight this fight, he relies heavily on the Road to Recovery program and people like Bishop, many of whom have what amount to backstories when it come to their volunteerism and, specifically, this particular program. Indeed, many have loved ones who have battled the disease, and some have fought it themselves.

But others, like Becky Mason, simply have some flexibility in their schedules and found an intriguing and quite rewarding way to take full advantage of it.

“I was looking for a volunteer opportunity,” said Mason, who has been driving for just a few months now. “They had a table for the Road to Recovery program at a breast-cancer event I attended recently with a friend. I knew there was a large need because I’ve had a few friends who have had different types of cancer, and in talking to them, one of their biggest concerns, beyond getting well, was all their appointments and how they had to go here and there. And they can’t drive, obviously.

“I never really thought about it, because I never had to go through it myself,” she went on. “But it is definitely a stressor in their lives to make sure they have the rides to and from.”

Kelly Woods says there is a strong need for new drivers for the Road to Recovery program to meet demand for the service.

There are more than 75 volunteers (50 who would be considered active) working to help relieve this stress by donating time and energy to the Road to Recovery program for the American Cancer Society’s Northwest Region, headquartered in Holyoke, said Kelly Woods, senior manager for Mission Delivery at that office, adding that each one has a different story, a different motivation for getting involved.

“Sometimes they’re cancer survivors or they have someone in their life who’s a survivor and they want to give back, or there’s someone they lost and that they want to honor,” she said, adding that, through November, volunteers provided roughly 1,000 rides in the four western counties. “But there are also individuals who are just looking for something meaningful to do; each story is different.”

Behind all their stories, though, is an even bigger one, said Woods, who told BusinessWest there is now a critical need for more drivers to meet the number of requests for assistance pouring into the agency. Among all the statistics she has regarding this program — and there are many — perhaps the most eye-opening, and easily the most concerning, involves how many requests the agency is not able to honor.

“Last year, in Hampden County alone, there were a little more than 300 rides that we could not meet,” she said, adding that, over the past few years, the program has lost some drivers due to what she called “natural attrition,” a situation that has actually led to fewer requests for rides.

This has left the local chapter in what she termed a rebuilding mode, meaning it is actively recruiting new drivers, with the goal of being able to meet more requests, thus generating more referrals down the road, as they say.

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the Road to Recovery program, the drivers who are its life blood, and the critical need for more volunteers to step forward.

Driving Force

Mason works as a project manager for a company called Test America, which tests water and soil. Her duties fall largely within the realm of customer service, she explained, adding that she’s often on the phone with clients discussing scheduling or test results.

While there’s always plenty to do, there is room for flexibility with her schedule, she went on, adding that she had this flexibility firmly in mind when she learned about the Road to Recovery program and started considering whether she could become a part of it.

The more she learned, the more intrigued she became. She learned, for instance, that drivers can essentially choose their assignments and how many they take on — at least a few times a month is requested. She was intrigued by the mission, impressed by the level of training that drivers must undertake (more on that later), and motivated by the obvious need for more volunteers.

Becky Mason has been driving just a few months, but she already finds her participation in the Road to Recovery program very rewarding.

And just a few months in, she can say it’s been an extremely rewarding experience.

“It gives me warm fuzzies when I do it,” she explained. “I like to help people, and I feel that when I do this I’m making a good impact on the world, I’m doing a good deed that is making a bright spot in someone’s life. I can’t change the world, but I can at least help one person with one small thing that they couldn’t get done.”

With that, she pretty much spoke for everyone who has been part of this program, said Woods, adding that Road to Recovery has been a big part of the landscape at the cancer society for decades now.

At the heart of the program lies a very basic need. Indeed, cancer care has improved exponentially over the past several decades, but it is a simple fact that, in most cases, people need to travel to receive treatments — often several times a week and even daily, as with radiation treatments.

And a good many of them, even those with family and a strong core of friends, need help getting ‘to and from,’ as Mason put it.

“These treatments can last several months, and then there’s follow-up appointments,” she explained. “Even for people with a good family network and friends, that gets tapped after a while. It may be that at the beginning they don’t need any help, but as time goes on, they do.

“And sometimes, we just serve as that ‘in-between,’” she went on. “Radiation treatment is six weeks — that’s 30 rides. They may be able to parcel 20 together, but they may need us for 10. And sometimes, we do all 30 because people don’t have a support network.”

To become a volunteer, one must obviously have a vehicle, a valid driver’s license, and a good driving record, said Woods. But they must also undergo a screening process and some training, the former involving a criminal background check and the latter including everything from using something called a service match portal computer to pick and schedule assignments to understanding the many rigid privacy laws now on the books.

“It’s great for the drivers, because there’s flexibility,” Woods said of the match portal. “They can log in as often as they want, and the system communicates with them and sends them e-mails if there are requested rides in their area.”

But there are some things that cannot really be taught, she told BusinessWest, noting that drivers essentially have to learn how to share time — and a front seat — with someone going through perhaps the most difficult time of their life.

Elaborating, she said they have to get a feel for what to talk about and when, knowing that cancer patients have both good and bad days.

Bishop, who drives two or three times a week, a schedule he’s maintained since he retired five years ago, said he learned this early on. He also learned that many patients do like to open up about their condition, their treatments, and life in general.
“They talk to me more about their stuff than I think they do with their own families,” he said. “I’m kind of like a second doctor sometimes; they’re not afraid to talk about it.”

Clarke said that individuals like Bishop are more than drivers; they’re companions and good listeners who help take some of the stress out of an already very stressful and difficult time.

“A lot of the people who drive me have been through cancer or have seen a family member affected by it, and that’s why they’re doing it,” he said. “I can’t thank them enough — they take a lot of stress off my wife; I do this to break it up so that she can have a life without running me back and forth all the time.”

The Ride Stuff

Moving forward, the biggest challenge is to recruit more drivers and thus reduce the number of requests that could not be met, said Woods, adding that, while there are many retirees within the current roster of drivers, one doesn’t have to wait until they’re done working to be a part of this program.

Indeed, she said a number of college students drive, as well as those who work second or third shift, like police officers and firefighters, and those like Mason — and Woods herself — who have some flexibility in their schedules.

The only real requirement is to be able to drive between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., when most all appointments are scheduled, she said, adding that those interested in volunteering can call (800) 227-2345 or log onto cancer.org for more information.

If they do call that number and become part of this special volunteer force, they will find a way to give back that is rewarding on a number of levels, said all those we spoke with.

They’ll discover, as Mason did, that while they can’t change the world, they can help one person in a very meaningful way.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Business of Aging

A Warm Handoff

Jim Carroll says one of the most rewarding parts of his job is seeing people turn their lives around.

Addiction knows no boundaries.

This is the main message Jim Carroll, medical director at OnCall Healthy Living Program, tries to instill in everyone he comes in contact with.

By this, he means addiction can affect people in all walks of life, and is not specific to one group of individuals like the stereotype may depict.

“What many people don’t realize is, addiction is in your neighborhood, in your workplace,” he said. “It doesn’t have any boundaries.”

This is what he and other staff members at OnCall keep in mind at all times when treating patients who are recovering from a substance-abuse disorder. What first started as a mixed-treatment facility with urgent care and addiction switched over to strictly addiction services in early 2018.

The facility pulls patients all the way from the Berkshires to Worcester, and Carroll says between 550 to 600 patients visit the main office in Northampton and a satellite office in Indian Orchard.

Carroll began at OnCall in 2008 as an attending doctor before moving up to medical director in 2013, but has been on staff in the Emergency Department at Mercy Medical Center for 13 years, giving him plenty of experience with addition services and showing him how much need exists for this kind of care.

“It became clear over several years that we wanted our focus to be on the addiction side of things,” he said. “Being in the Emergency Department, we were always very well aware of the opioid crisis and what it was doing to each individual and society as a whole, so we wanted to be a part of the solution.”

And there certainly is a need.

“We’re all about getting people on the path to becoming a better version of themselves.”

The opioid epidemic in Massachusetts has skyrocketed over the last decade. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health reported 1,091 confirmed opioid-related overdose deaths in the state during the first nine months of 2019, with an additional 332 to 407 deaths expected by year’s end.

This makes the services OnCall provides even more imperative. In recent years, OnCall has been putting a new two-part model to the test to make its services even more effective, working toward trying to bring the number of opioid-related deaths much closer to zero.

Beyond the Medicine

Carroll said the mission for every medical provider and behavioral-health professional at OnCall is to help patients recover and lead healthy lives, providing a comfortable environment free of judgment.

“We’re all about getting people on the path to becoming a better version of themselves,” he explained. “The more people we have in treatment, the less people we have at risk for death from overdose that we see in the Emergency Department on an almost daily basis.”

In order to accomplish its goal of helping people get on a healthier and safer path, OnCall uses a two-part model and what it calls ‘a warm handoff’ to get patients back on track. This includes the use of medication along with therapy and other supportive services to help address issues related to alcohol and opioid dependence.

“I really couldn’t say that one would be okay without the other, which is why we utilize both,” said Carroll, adding that frequency of visits for therapy and medication checkups vary based on how patients are doing.

He added that one of the hardest parts is getting people to take that first step through the door. “One of our biggest challenges is getting people in for the first follow-up visit. When we actually get people to show up, they usually have a positive experience, and then they’re off and running on their recovery.”

He also noted that, according to the limited studies OnCall has conducted, somewhere between 70% and 90% of people who have an opioid-use disorder are not in treatment — yet another reason for the facility to eliminate its urgent-care services and move to addiction services full-time.

“We know a lot of people need help, and with a rise of more and more urgent cares, that became less of a need,” he said.

Another big challenge is the stigma surrounding addiction and treatment, and Carroll said people sometimes worry about how they are going to be treated. This has prompted OnCall to focus on cultivating a comfortable environment for patients from the time they walk in the door to the moment they walk out.

“One of the things we’ve been very cognisant of is what kind of environment we present for patients who present to our clinic,” he told BusinessWest. “Our philosophy and our feeling here is that, once someone actually presents here, they should feel very comfortable being here.”

Rewarding Challenge

“A no-judgment zone” is another way Carroll describes OnCall.

Unfortunately, stigma still does get in the way of people seeking treatment, and labels are often assigned to people who have substance-abuse disorders. He stressed that it’s important for people to realize addiction is a disease — one that can happen to anyone.

“Addiction doesn’t have any special predilection toward any race, gender, age, or profession,” he said. “When people actually understand the disease process and understand that addiction is a brain disease and that it’s not a moral failing, they’ll understand that this isn’t someone trying to proactively ruin their lives or the lives of the people around them.”

He drove this point home by asking a perspective-shifting question: “if someone had type-2 diabetes, would you hold that against them?”

Despite the various challenges that come with the job, for Carroll, the rewards are innumerable.

“Seeing the turnarounds that happen in people’s lives is amazing,” he said. “We see people at some of their lowest moments, and when we can be part of the support team that turns things around for them and you see people get their self-esteem back, their jobs back, their families back, that’s very gratifying as a provider. Seeing people literally turn their lives around in front of you is one of the most rewarding things of my professional career.”

And although the 600 patients OnCall currently serves might seem like a huge number, Carroll says the practice has the capacity for double that amount, and encouraged anyone who is suffering from a substance-abuse disorder, or knows someone who is, to seek help immediately.

“The busier we are, the more people we’re helping, and that’s a good feeling,” he said. “Until we aren’t seeing any overdoses anymore, we just keep moving forward and trying to be part of the solution.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Education

Reservoir of Talent

Ware High School graduates

Ware High School graduates, from left, Felicity Dineen, Jordan Trzpit, Valentina Towne, Joe Gagnon, Morgan Orszulak, and Seth Bourdeau with Michael Moran (right), president of Baystate Health’s Eastern Region, which helped fund tuition and textbooks for the students’ EMT training at Holyoke Community College’s satellite in Ware.

 

 

Seth Bordeau had no plans to become a paramedic, but a chance elective at Ware High School last year — “Introduction to Fire Science,” taught by Ware Fire Department Deputy Chief Edward Wloch — led him down an unexpected path.

“I was less than enthusiastic, but slightly interested in the fire-science class,” Bordeau said. “But after every class, I found myself more and more excited for the next. The subject of emergency services was fascinating, and as the year-long course was coming to an end and graduation grew closer, I knew I’d miss this class the most. I also knew that I wanted to pursue this career.”

Fortunately, the elective led to an opportunity to take an EMT class at the Holyoke Community College satellite located at the Education to Employment (E2E) site on Main Street in Ware. He and fellow Ware High students who finished the high-school elective are now contemplating a career in fire science and emergency medicine. Baystate Wing Hospital Corp., one of the E2E’s local business partners, provided a matching grant that covered half the tuition and textbooks for the EMT course for each of the students.

“When we took a step back and took a broader look, we realized there was a hole in the region — there really weren’t any institutions of higher learning past high school, very little if any public transportation, and a lack of resources for people looking for jobs and employers looking for qualified workers.”

“I signed up for the EMT course almost immediately and didn’t think twice about my decision,” said Bordeau. “The EMT course ran from June to August, the whole summer, and looking back, I wouldn’t have wanted the summer to be any different. I have completed the practical exam and passed, and I am now onto taking my written exam. Once that is completed, I’ve been offered a position as an EMT for the town of West Brookfield. I hope to further my career by looking into paramedic school.”

This career pipeline between Ware High School and HCC’s satellite in Ware is just one example of how E2E — initially forged as a partnership between the Quaboag Valley Community Development Corp. (QVCDC) and HCC — is building connections between higher education, local businesses, economic-development leaders, and the community to meet workforce needs, said Jeff Hayden, vice president of Business and Community Services at HCC.

“From an academic point of view, they’re really looking to provide hands-on training activities for students who maybe aren’t sure what they want to do, or aren’t as book-motivated as some students might be. The hands-on training is giving them experience in an actual occupation,” said Hayden, noting that Ware High School added a criminal-justice elective to its roster of project-based, career-focused learning in 2018, and will introduce a certified nursing assistant (CNA) course in the fall of 2019.

Those efforts are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to E2E programming, which features a range of resources for employers looking for talent and individuals seeking jobs (and the skills needed to procure them), and even a transportation service, the Quaboag Connector, that helps people access these services across these lightly populated towns in West-Central Mass.

“E2E is really a unique and innovative facility to help meet the needs of folks in our rural, former mill-town communities,” said Sheila Cuddy, executive director of the QVCDC. Several years ago, she explained, her organization was looking at strategic planning in the 15 communities it serves.

Jeff Hayden said HCC meets a need in Ware and surrounding towns

Jeff Hayden said HCC meets a need in Ware and surrounding towns for students who might be burdened by a long commute to the nearest college campus.

“We had been meeting with educators and small-business people and larger employers about the disconnect in our unemployment rates in this region, which tend to be 1% to 2% above the state average,” Cuddy told BusinessWest. “At the same time, we had employers who had difficulty hiring qualified workers. When we took a step back and took a broader look, we realized there was a hole in the region — there really weren’t any institutions of higher learning past high school, very little if any public transportation, and a lack of resources for people looking for jobs and employers looking for qualified workers.”

After HCC came on board as the QVCDC’s higher-ed partner in E2E, Country Bank stepped up with class-A office space in downtown Ware it no longer needed, and a mix of business funders (including Monson Savings Bank), grants, and tax credits began to take shape. “Since then, it has mushroomed,” Cuddy said.

For this issue’s focus on education, BusinessWest takes a look at how Education to Employment has brought new levels of collaboration and creativity to bear on the persistent problem of matching job seekers with jobs — often jobs, as in Bordeau’s case, they had no idea they’d want.

Key Connections

In one sense, Hayden noted, the E2E center was created to provide a place where individuals could connect with the college, because a 45-minute commute could be an obstacle — in both time and money — to enrolling in college. “So if you had a place where you could get information, resources, and a study place, with technology there, that might be advantageous.”

Indeed, the roughly 3,000-square-foot center located at 79 Main St. in Ware includes two classrooms, as well as private study areas and office space. Computer workstations are available for community members interested in enrolling in credit classes at HCC as online students. Meanwhile, the center has offered non-credit classes in hospitality and culinary arts, manufacturing, and health careers. Staffers are also on hand to help people with résumé writing, job-interview and application advice, and soft skills that all employers seek.

“They might need help with a résumé, or they might need additional classes, either for college credit or workforce-training classes to get certification for a new job. Or there might be questions about how to apply for financial aid,” Cuddy said.

“We have several computers and robust broadband service,” she added. “It really has become what we envisioned it to be — an education-to-employment center. We’ve had several ServSafe classes to help people step into the hospitality industry, which also helps local restaurants. We did some training with the Mass. Gaming Commission to prepare for casino jobs. We’ve also done manufacturing training with MassHire folks from the Franklin-Hampshire region.”

In addition, local employers have come to E2E looking for skilled workers, and sometimes matches are made through job fairs, she said. “We also have a local veterans’ group that meets there once a month. It really has become a vibrant and vital community resource and a respectful place for people to come to learn.”

Hayden agreed, citing efforts like a business-led program aimed at instilling workforce training and soft skills in the 16-to-24 age group. “They’ve also done programs at the QVCDC where they help people save money to start businesses. They do computer classes, literacy classes, financial-literacy classes, and we’ve done some of that stuff as well out there. It has become very active.”

It’s all supplemented by the Quaboag Connector, a mini-bus system that brings people back and forth between Palmer, Ware, and the other Quaboag communities for jobs, classes, and other things, Hayden noted. “That’s been extremely effective. Oftentimes, we think of the poverty in the urban core of Springfield, Holyoke, and Chicopee, and we don’t necessarily think of the rural or suburban poor, especially in the communities out east, where the challenges of transportation, day care, and elder care are the same as in urban communities. Getting to work on time is a challenge without buses and vans to make it work.”

Baystate Health’s Eastern Region, which includes Baystate Wing Hospital and Baystate Mary Lane, is one of the Quaboag Connector’s partners, providing $90,000 in funding to the transportation initiative.

“The consequences of the lack of transportation and unemployment elevate the importance to invest in these local initiatives. Both provide good options for our young people,” said Mike Moran, Baystate’s Eastern Region president. “Baystate Health is strongly committed to the many communities in our region and will continue to work with our community partners to focus and grow programs and initiatives that promote wellness, education, and workforce development.” 

Natural Fit

Surveying the growing roster of programs run through E2E, Hayden said the partnerships forged among higher education, the business community, and other groups, all of whom are seeking similar outcomes when it comes to building a vibrant workforce, have come together naturally and organically.

E2E offices

Country Bank donated space on Main Street in Ware to the QVCDC for the E2E offices.

“It doesn’t feel forced at all; it feels like people really want to work together to make something happen,” he told BusinessWest. “The challenge is always financial resources. None of us singly have enough resources to make it work, and even jointly, it would be difficult to make some of these initiatives work, but we’ve all been working together to find those resources.”

The needs remain significant, Cuddy added.

“We have a number of manufacturers, small and large, based in our region that are facing the challenge of a workforce that’s aging out. I know a company with more than 100 employees, and within five years, 50% of those employees will be approaching retirement age. I know everyone is having difficulty finding people who are certified to be CNAs, especially as the population ages, and other healthcare careers are having the same issues — the aging of the existing workforce and training newer folks needed to take up these careers.”

That’s why Education to Employment makes sense, and is needed, she went on.

“These community partnerships really speak to Western Mass., whether it be out of necessity or creativity or a general spirit of neighborliness. Especially in the smaller communities, there’s a recognition that all of us working together accomplish a whole lot more than we could individually.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]