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Senior Center Programs Continue in Spite of COVID-19

Josie Dutil’s adoration and affection for seniors stems from her relationship with her parents, especially her 88-year-

By KEN HAMWEY, Contributing Writer
Josie Dutil, who’s approaching her fourth year as the Senior Center Director, remains positive while managing the day-to-day activities at the facility during the COVID-19 pandemic that’s been ongoing for two years.
The 54-year-old native of Montreal firmly believes there’s light at the end of the tunnel. 
“All of this (pandemic) may have happened so we can access a deeper appreciation of all that we have in Bellingham,’’ she said. “It’s made us realize that we can do hard things. I’m confident good things will come out of all that we’ve been through.’’
When the coronavirus began in March 2020, the center closed, but help was still being offered. “We helped seniors with fuel assistance, food stamps, housing issues and food and grocery deliveries,’’ Dutil said. “A staff person was on duty at all times. In June that year, transportation to doctors’ appointments started again.’’
The staff returned in July and during that time frame a tent, grill and outdoor furniture were purchased for weekly cookouts conducted by the Bellingham Elder Service Group (BESG).
When January and February rolled around in 2021, programming again was stopped, but now, with masks a must inside the building, seniors are back to enjoying more activities than what was available pre-pandemic. 
Programming that’s available includes pool, bingo, card games, Tai Chi, Yoga, Enhanced Fitness, motion to music and supportive day care. Other activities offered are knitting, quilting, learn to paint, spiritual book club and mahjong. “The only program that has not returned is chorus,’’ Dutil noted.
The grant process, which helps to sustain programs and projects, hasn’t faded into the background because of COVID. Far from it.
The center has received grants for construction of an outdoor pavilion, the drive-by-lunch program, caregiver support and enhanced fitness. 
“We received $15,000 from Amazon for the pavilion, which is used for cookouts and other outdoor functions,’’ Dutil said. “The State Formula Grant subsidized the rest of the cost. The drive-by-lunch program started, thanks to a CHNA6 grant. Now it’s funded by private donations and occasional small grants. A caregiver support grant from the Mass. Council on Aging provided $7,800 to supportive day services so caregivers can take a break. A CHNA6 grant for $8,300 helped Bellingham residents offset the cost of Enhanced Fitness for a one-year period.’’
Grants, donations and possibly some Town Meeting funding will play a role in the senior center’s kitchen expansion. “Plans are in the works for a commercial kitchen,’’ Dutil said. “We want to serve breakfast and lunches. Currently, we serve 35 lunches with the drive-by lunch program on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays but only 35 are available each of those days.’’
The cost of the project will be about $300,000 and additional funding will be available from the American Rescue Plan Act.
“So much of the work we do depends on the commitment of so many caring and energetic volunteers and I can honestly say that Bellingham has some of the best around,’’ Dutil said. “We sometimes struggle with the magnitude of what volunteers do for this community and how we could possibly thank them.’’
The senior center always participates in scheduling a clinic for the seasonal flu but it was front and center in 2021 when a site was needed to provide the COVID-19 vaccine. Two clinics were held in March and April and a booster-shot clinic was held this year in January. “The senior center partnered with the health department and first responders for the first two clinics,’’ Dutil noted.  
Dutil estimates that about 400 Council on Aging (COA) members use the senior center on a regular basis and she says “a large majority of our seniors at the center are vaccinated.’’
Dutil labels her part-time and full-time staff members as “amazing, courageous people’’ for their teamwork in dealing with the pandemic. “They stepped up and did extraordinary things in extraordinary times,’’ she emphasized. “They strive to improve the lives of seniors every day.’’
Dutil, who majored in education at McGill University in Montreal, excelled as a college soccer player, achieving all-Canadian recognition. Before her hiring in Bellingham, she was the Health and Wellness Director for the North Attleboro Y.
When she took the reins in Bellingham, Dutil’s vision was “to ensure that senior citizens are valued and that they’re seen and heard.’’ 
One of her goals was to create space that makes people feel better leaving than when they entered. “And, I always want to be open to learning new things on a daily basis, about the work we do and my personal growth,’’ she said. 
Because she never utters any negativity about dealing with COVID, Dutil’s optimism is contagious. And, she’s emphatic when she says: “The staff and I will continue to do our best to serve seniors in a positive and optimistic setting.’’