Baystate volunteer honorees are enriching America

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By Brian Goslow

ACTON —

It’s been over 20 years since Barbara Smith received the call from a woman on behalf of her sister and 15-year-old daughter fleeing the violence in El Salvador. The caller, a refugee herself, had lost her husband to El Salvadoran violence in 1985.

“She called my church and asked if any of the parishioners could help fill her apartment with furniture,” said Smith, who put a note about the request in the church’s bulletin. “We got such an outpouring of goods that we had so much left over.”

So much furniture remained that Barbara and her husband, Ira, decided to start Household Goods Recycling of Massachusetts (HGRM) in their Acton garage in 1990. Since that time, they’ve helped tens of thousands of people resettle, inspiring hundreds of volunteers to assist them in their mission.

The Smiths, both 79, were recently honored as recipients of 2010 MetLife Foundation Older Volunteers Enrich America Awards and named “Gold Winners” in the community champion category. The award recognizes the outstanding contributions of volunteers age 50 and older to local communities. A blue ribbon panel from the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging selected 26 volunteers from across the nation.

The Smiths were joined at an early May awards ceremony in Washington, D.C. by fellow Massachusetts resident Virginia Lemire, 73, of Lincoln. Lemire was honored for her work as a SHINE health benefits counselor, medical advocate and Safe Meds volunteer for Minuteman Senior Services of Burlington and for initiating a senior meals program in her hometown.

In 2004, HGRM moved from the Smiths’ garage to a larger facility in Acton. Nearly 300 volunteers are helping victims of fires or floods, women and their children fleeing domestic abuse situations, people moving into their own apartments from shelters or halfway houses, war veterans down on their luck and recent immigrants to the United States.

“We see 50 to 70 families a week,” Barbara Smith said. “Some just need furniture, a bed or a sofa. Some families take just a little but increasingly, they need everything.” She estimated that a third of the families HGRM sees are starting a home from scratch.

“They’re very respectful of people’s dignity and know the people are having a tough time or they wouldn’t be there,” said Virginia Miria of the Smiths. Miria handles HGRM’s communication and fundraising duties and nominated the couple for the award. “They don’t want to be seen as a charity and they don’t want the people they help seen as getting charity. They see it as a way to get them on their feet and on with their lives.”

The Smiths met in upstate New York, where Barbara attended Potsdam State University (now the State University of New York at Potsdam) and Ira was an ROTC student at Clarkson University before serving in the Army Signal Corp in post-combat Korea. Along with raising six children, Barbara taught school; Ira went onto a career in management consulting. The Smiths moved to Massachusetts when Ira got a job with Raytheon.

While continuing to serve as the organization’s co-executive directors, the Smiths have passed the administrative duties onto others, setting up a board of directors of like-minded people, many of whom come from its volunteer base. That suits the couple fine; they’ve got people to help. “Most days, we don’t feel our age,” Ira Smith said. “We’re very fortunate to be healthy and young and this work over the last 20 years has kept us this way.”

“It’s great exercise,” Barbara Smith added.

“They are in such amazing, knock on wood, great physical shape,” Miria said. “They are in there, moving things around, picking up couches, all the time, almost every day. They insist on being the ones who distribute the items. They’re on their feet the whole time.”

While the Smiths’ road to volunteerism was inspired by a stranger’s phone call, Lemire’s inspiration was her mother.

After retiring from a stressful career in medical research at Concord Communications in Marlborough at age 63, Lemire just wanted time alone. “After dealing with a large number of people each day, I just wanted the phone to stop ringing and people to stop coming to my door,” she said. “I was a hermit for a year.”

That changed when Lemire saw a newspaper article on the SHINE (Serving the Health Information Needs of Elders) counseling program. Overseen by the Massachusetts Executive Office of Elder Affairs, the program provides free health information, counseling and assistance to Medicare beneficiaries and their caregivers.

Her interest was piqued because her mother was having trouble understanding her Medicare forms back in her home state of Iowa. “I wasn’t able to help her directly but through the article, I learned there were programs similar to SHINE all over the country so I knew there was one that could help my mom,” Lemire said.

Soon afterwards, Lemire contacted Minuteman Senior Services in Burlington to become a SHINE counselor. Over the past 10 years, she’s invested endless hours keeping up with changing regulations for Medicare, Medigap and HMOs and engaging in large amounts of client contact at the Concord Council on Aging. “I love it when people call when they turn 65 and I can explain to them how Medicare works,” she said.

Minuteman Senior Services volunteer services coordinator Debbie Barr, who nominated her for the award, said Lemire is able to clearly analyze what needs to happen — then take the appropriate action. “She has a reputation for being tenacious if she feels someone is being taken advantage of,” Barr said.

Lemire’s toughest case occurred after a client mistakenly gave a credit card instead of a health insurance card after being rushed to the emergency room. By the time the case reached Lemire, months had passed and the hospital had billed both her client’s credit card and Medicare account. Eventually, she was able to help her client get the full amount reimbursed. “Like any institution, the wheel turns slowly,” Lemire said. “The lesson was to never show your Master Card in a hospital.”

Lemire also accompanies seniors to doctor appointments as a medical escort, an advocate program she helped create with other Minuteman volunteers. It’s intended to allow seniors to continue to live at home safely by ensuring they have the transportation and assistance needed to get to their medical appointments and return home knowing what steps to take to remain healthy.

“She talks with them a lot about what they want to happen at an appointment and makes sure they bring a list of medications, recent treatments and recent medical issues to it,” Barr said. “The (medical escort) volunteers sit in during the appointment to make sure any health-related questions are asked and answered. Afterwards, they go over what was covered with the patient and discuss what the next appointment should be for.”

Lemire also helped start a Safe Meds at Home program for seniors who otherwise might have to move to a nursing home because they couldn’t manage their medications. She helps her clients prepare and take the correct dosages on schedule. I don’t touch the pills,” she said. “The actual work takes 15 or 20 minutes, but sometimes, I’m there for an hour and a half,” said Lemire, who may be the only person a client will see that week.

While participating in Gov. Deval Patrick’s Commonwealth Corps program to encourage volunteer workers to try out new potential professions, she learned that her hometown was one of two of the 16 towns Minuteman serves that didn’t have a senior dining program. “Someone said they thought Lincoln didn’t need it (due to its relatively high per capita income),” Lemire said. “I said economics wasn’t the point, the sociality of the experience was.”

Along with longtime town volunteer Al Schmertzler, she investigated making such a program a reality, starting with the town’s senior center and its board of directors. “Their reservation was, ‘Don’t touch our volunteers; we don’t have enough as it is,’” Lemire said.

Lemire and Schmertzler’s enthusiasm was infectious: St. Anne’s Episcopal Church offered use of its dining room and certified kitchen facilities; the Newbury Court assisted living retirement community in Concord agreed to have its chef prepare meals for the monthly gatherings; The Friends of the Lincoln Senior Center provided start-up funding; the COA helped secure a $750 tax write-off against property taxes for a program manager; and Lemire enlisted the help of two local real estate offices, whose staffs provide five rotating teams of servers.

Barr said it’s just another example of Lemire’s can-do spirit. “She needed the support of the local boards to bring the facility up to code and find a staff to run it for a whole year,” Barr said. “It’s the first time the town has had a lunch program where people can get a warm meal and hang around and socialize afterward. The meal site really brought together the things she’s done in supporting seniors.”