By Mark Morris
Robert Boilard credits people in town working together as the reason Wilbraham has come through the pandemic so far with minimal impact on the community.
“We incorporated our protocols early and have been very fortunate that most people have remained safe from COVID,” said Boilard, who chairs the Wilbraham Board of Selectmen.
Officials from the Police and Fire departments, as well as the town’s public-health nurse, provide weekly updates to the selectmen of the number of positive cases, illnesses, and hospitalizations so they can continue to closely monitor the community’s health.
Boilard pointed to a new DPW garage and a storage facility for the Parks and Recreation department as two projects the town was able to complete during the pandemic. As a community that has received funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), the board is hoping to use the money on water-infrastructure projects and expanding broadband internet.
“We have a master plan to install broadband throughout Wilbraham,” Boilard said. “This is a project that will be ongoing for the next few years.”
Another big project on the horizon involves a new senior center. On Oct. 18, Wilbraham will hold a special town meeting to discuss building the facility behind Town Hall. Paula Dubord, the town’s director of Elder Affairs, said she and others have led a 10-year effort for a senior center that can better accommodate the community’s growing senior population.
“Our current location is in a lovely building, but the space is only 3,840 square feet,” Dubord said. “With more than 4,000 seniors in town, it’s just too small.”
The drive for a new senior center began in 2012 with a study committee, which concluded the existing senior center did not meet the town’s needs, even at that time. Next, a feasibility committee was formed and brought in an architect to do a deep dive on what made sense for a new facility. After seven years and consideration of nearly 40 different sites in Wilbraham, the feasibility study recommended building a new structure on municipally owned land behind Town Hall. October’s town meeting will give residents a chance to vote on that recommendation.
“Our current location is in a lovely building, but the space is only 3,840 square feet. With more than 4,000 seniors in town, it’s just too small.”
There were some in town who pushed for locating the new senior center in an available former school. Dubord said the senior center has been located in old schools twice before, and it’s an approach that just doesn’t work.
“The experts who took part in the feasibility study told us a new building was a more practical way to meet the current and future needs for Wilbraham residents,” he said.
When the study committee began its work in 2012, members looked at the potential growth in the over-60 population in Wilbraham.
“We projected that, by 2025, nearly 40% of our town — with a population of nearly 15,000 — will be considered a senior,” Dubord said. “We are very close to that projection right now.”
As Wilbraham residents age, she added, many of them say they prefer to stay in their own home or move to one of the 55+ communities in town.
In its current location, more than 100 residents visit the senior center every day. Dubord emphasized that the real goal of the center is to keep people socially connected. Last March, when the pandemic forced the center to shut down, she and her staff quickly found new ways to stay connected with local seniors.
“We immediately started grocery shopping for people and picking up essential items like masks and toilet paper — both of which were hard to get in the beginning — as well as their prescription medicines,” she said.
The staff at the center put their full focus on meeting the needs of Wilbraham seniors, she added. “Because everyone was isolated, we did lots of phone check-ins with people to keep them engaged.”
In the spring, when vaccines first became available for people 65 and older, Dubord and her staff helped seniors sign up online to receive their shots when the state made them available at the nearby Eastfield Mall in Springfield.
“The registration process was not easy for seniors to complete, so we became like vaccination headquarters,” she said. “Because we had done a number of them, our staff was able to quickly get people registered for their shot.”
Dubord estimates they helped nearly 400 residents sign up for the initial vaccine offering. Later, the senior center hosted its own vaccine clinic run by staff from the Public Health and Fire departments.
“Through all those efforts, we are confident that everyone who wanted to get a shot was able to get one,” she said.
Like many senior centers in the area, Wilbraham also offed a grab-and-go lunch program when it could not open the center for meals. “The real plus to the grab-and-go was it introduced us to people we’ve never seen before at the senior center,” Dubord said.
Happy to open the doors at the senior center almost three months ago, she said having someplace to go gives people a purpose and plays a key role in our health as we age.
“Many of our seniors live alone, so the center is important because it gives them access to vital community services and for the social connections they make,” she noted. Indeed, according to a Harvard Health study, the negative health risks of social isolation are comparable to smoking and obesity, increasing mortality risk by up to 30%.
Wilbraham at a glance
Year Incorporated: 1763
Area: 22.4 square miles
Residential Tax Rate: $22.96
Commercial Tax Rate: $22.96
Median Household Income: $65,014
Median Family Income: $73,825
Type of government: Board of Selectmen, Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Baystate Wing Wilbraham Medical Center; Friendly Ice Cream Corp.; Big Y; Home Depot; Wilbraham & Monson Academy
*Latest information available
While a new senior center can address the needs of Wilbraham’s growing elder population, Dubord said the plan is for the new building to also house services for veterans in town.
“There are benefits for the new center beyond seniors,” she explained. “The larger space can be used by Boy and Girl Scouts, as well as women’s groups or other organizations in town.”
Gradual easing of COVID-19 mandates is also good news for Wilbraham businesses. Grace Barone, executive director of East of the River Five Town Chamber of Commerce, noted that, like everyone else, Wilbraham businesses are looking forward to something resembling business as usual once again.
She pointed to a recent annual meeting of the chamber which more than 130 members attended in person while others joined remotely as an example of gradually getting back to attending events while still staying safe.
“The chamber’s golf tournament at the end of September is another way to get back to networking and taking advantage of the outdoors while we can,” she added.
New to her role at the chamber, Barone has been in the job since late June after working with the Keystone Commons retirement community in Ludlow for the last five years.
“I’m hoping to take what we’ve learned from the past 18 months to help our businesses succeed going forward,” she said. “It’s going to take some time, but we can get there together.”
Boilard shares Barone’s optimism about the future.
“It’s awesome to see how well everyone works together,” he said. “From boards to community groups, they are all focused on making Wilbraham a better place to live.”