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New senior center director loves job and volunteers

by Lex Thomas

Last year marked a time of significant change for Sterling’s 2,100 senior residents (aged 60+). After several years of discussions, wrangling, and negotiations, the new senior center was finally built at the corner of Boutelle and Muddy Pond roads, and opened its doors in the spring. On October 2, a public event attracted several hundred guests and dignitaries to celebrate the center’s grand opening.

The following day, Veronica Buckley took up her post at the helm as Senior Center Director. Now, four months into her tenure, Buckley remains enthusiastic. “I absolutely love my job,” she says.

Along with her natural energy, Buckley brings a wealth of education and experience to the job. She spent 11 years as a part-time outreach coordinator at the Ware Senior Center, before moving to a full-time position as a resident services director for a number of housing complexes that cater to seniors.

Armed with a bachelor’s degree in nursing from Georgetown University, and enjoying community work, she decided to pursue a master’s degree in aging services from the University of Massachusetts in Boston.

“I wanted to be able to work with seniors and understand the issues from all perspectives, not just from the point of view of housing,” she says. “I felt that education was the key for me. I learned how much people rely on the senior center for socialization, recreation, and education services. And I learned how to overcome objections, like people saying they’re not old enough to utilize their senior center.”

Buckley is already focusing on very specific goals. One of her top priorities is increased outreach, which she plans to achieve not only by bringing more people into the senior center, but by taking the senior center to people who may be housebound or not entirely comfortable in a new and unknown environment.

“How do we reach that most isolated population?” she asks. “We bring them into the senior center, or we bring the senior center to them.”

Toward that goal, Buckley plans to launch a “friendly visitor program” sometime this year. “We’ll have ambassadors that will visit people at home,” she says. “We’ve got seniors that are housebound and that have mobility problems. Some are vision impaired. And some are simply uncomfortable going out.”

She also plans to start a newcomer lunch in the spring, geared toward people that may not be able to get to the senior center very often, or feel uncomfortable meeting new people.

“Walking into a room full of strangers can be really scary for some people,” she says. “I want to reach them and let them know they’re welcome here.”

In addition to expanding outreach into the community, Buckley is also working on diversifying existing programs to attract a larger group of people.

“I’m taking a hard look at what the community’s needs are,” she says. “I’m talking to as many people as I can to find out what they need, what they think works, and what they’d like to see us offer.”

Yoga, pilates, and Tai Chi classes are all popular, and the foot care clinic has been an immediate success. A men’s group is attracting participants, and the homemade Wednesday lunches, prepared in the center’s full-service kitchen, are a big hit. Buckley hopes to increase afternoon programs, and add art programs in future.

Among Buckley’s more innovative ideas is that the senior center should be attractive and welcoming to all ages. An intergenerational pen pal program that matches seniors with Houghton Elementary School students to exchange letters gives both age groups the opportunity to exchange experiences and ideas, and a recent visit by Chocksett Middle School students proved enjoyable for everyone.

The rotating art shows, featuring one artist’s work for a two-month stint is also attracting visitors to drop by for a coffee and peruse the exhibit, as well as attending an artist reception for each show.

Although Buckley is always thinking about how to make Sterling’s senior center as friendly and useful as possible, she is categorical about what has made her job a joy from the start, and what she calls one of the “best surprises” she’s had.

“We have the best volunteer team I’ve ever experienced,” she says. “They are fantastic, and I want people to know that aside from a very few people, our senior center is mostly run by volunteers. We couldn’t do it without them.” She’s always on the lookout to expand her volunteer crew, and encourages community members of all ages to consider helping out at the senior center.

“I feel that we’re building on a solid foundation,” she says. “We want to maximize the use of our beautiful senior center, our vans, and all our resources, as much as possible, to make sure people are connected. That’s really what we’re all about.”

Photo by Richard Maki: Senior Center Director Veronica Buckley serves veterans at a luncheon to honor veterans in December.

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