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Elderly Services expands options; kids’ meals are back

ELDERLY SERVICES INC.’S Geetha Wunnava and Ken Schoen are making sure the Project Independence senior daycare program makes a smooth return to in-person activities beginning Monday, June 7, in part under tents outside. Meanwhile, the annual free summer meal program for kids will begin a six-week run on June 21. Independent photo/John Flowers

One of the unseen factors of the pandemic, for all of us, is people have exercised way less. They’re less mobile… and we’re pretty sure a lot of people will have to build up their physical stamina again.
— Ken Schoen

ADDISON COUNTY — Addison County will see further signs of a pandemic rebound this month, as key services are due to be restored to people at both ends of the age spectrum.

First, Elderly Services Inc. is set to reopen its immensely popular Project Independence (PI) senior daycare program to in-person participants — on a limited basis, to start — on June 7. The coronavirus forced Elderly Services to suspend in-person PI programming at its 112 Exchange St. headquarters around 14 months ago. Instead, organizers have been offering PI’s wide assortment of exercise, arts, music, lecture and entertainment programs online.

Second, children age birth through 18 will again have access to free summer meals this year — only this time, they’ll be available for on-site consumption, and in some cases in concert with recreational programming. Area school districts offered free summer meals (breakfast and lunch) last year, but on a take-away or delivery basis, due to the pandemic.

Elderly Services Activities Director Ken Schoen said PI will cautiously reopen to 15 on-site participants on June 7, then gradually expand that number with guidance from the Vermont Department of Health and CDC. There will be a morning and an afternoon program, Monday through Friday, from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Schoen anticipates PI will rotate most people out after the morning session in order to allow new participants in the afternoon.

The rotation effort will not only allow more people to enjoy PI, it’s also reflective of the fact that participants might not be ready for full-day sessions.

“One of the unseen factors of the pandemic, for all of us, is people have exercised way less,” Schoen said. “They’re less mobile… and we’re pretty sure a lot of people will have to build up their physical stamina again.”

It should be stressed that PI will maintain virtual programming (via Zoom) for those not yet able to return on-site. In fact, Schoen believes there will always be an online option for PI enthusiasts.

“It’s been a great equalizer,” he said of Zoom.

He reasoned Zoom programming will allow Elderly Services’ most frail and immobile clients to continue to enjoy PI, post-COVID.

“It makes intuitive sense for me not to throw the baby out with the bathwater,” he said.

Project Independence had a pre-COVID list of around 130 participants and 90 staff. Schoen acknowledged many staff had to, unfortunately, be laid off or furloughed during COVID. The upcoming “phase one” of reopening will allow PI to employ 30 staff, some of whom will be in charge of Zoom and meal preparation.

The PI workforce will gradually ramp up as in-person activities grow.

There’s no formula that will determine who gets one of the initial 15 in-person slots, according to Schoen.

“It’s a hard thing to sort out when you have to open the spigot slowly,” Schoen said, borrowing a metaphor from Gov. Phil Scott. “We’re working very closely with participants, family members and caregivers to make the decisions about what’s going to work best for every single participant.”

While Vermont is steadily shedding COVID-related restrictions thanks to a vaccination rate approaching 80%, elder care facilities must continue to take a conservative approach, Schoen explained. Yes, pretty much all PI participants will have been vaccinated by June 7, but supervisors are concerned about the potential appearance of coronavirus variants that could hurt the frail and elderly.

Here’s a glimpse of health protocols for phase one of PI’s in-person programming:

•  Participants will eat indoors, but engage in PI activities outdoors, under two tents recently set up on Elderly Services’ grounds.

•  Face coverings will be required indoors (except when eating), along with six feet of social distancing.

•  Each participant — regardless of mobility — will be assigned a walker in which they’ll wheel around such essentials as face mask, sanitizer and personal beverage cup.

FOOD FOR KIDS

Meanwhile, conditions are also returning to normal for summer recreation and child nutrition programs in our area.

After a year of disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, organizers of free summer food programs will partner with local communities in the three Addison County school districts to ensure area children ages 0 through 18 have access to in-person, nutritious breakfast and lunch options from late June to mid-August.

Thanks to enhanced COVID-related funding through the United States Department of Agriculture, all children will again qualify this year for six weeks of free food (June 21 to mid-August), either as:

•  Individual breakfasts and lunches offered at sites in the Middlebury, Vergennes and Bristol areas, or

•  “Meal kits” that will include a week’s worth of nutritious food for each child in a household.

In Middlebury, the Addison Central School District and Middlebury Parks & Recreation Department will be in charge of the free breakfasts and lunches, which will be served to children at the Memorial Sports Center and at Mary Hogan Elementary School, where the meals will be made. All meals will include a protein, milk, grains, fruits and vegetables.

Meal kit pickup sites will include Middlebury Union High School, Bridport Central School, Platt Memorial Library in Shoreham, Ripton Elementary School and Salisbury Community School.

If you live in the Addison Central School District, you can download a summer vacation kit order form here: tinyurl.com/39nve7ck.

Questions can be emailed to ACSD Food Service Director Laura LaVacca at llavacca@acsdvt.org

IN THE BRISTOL AREA

Kathy Alexander is food nutrition director for both the Mount Abraham Unified and Addison Northwest school districts. 

She said both districts will be running summer programs for youths, where meals will be available.

Meal kits will be available at Bristol’s Lawrence Memorial Library, Mount Abraham Union High School, and the Hub teen center. Starksboro’s Book Wagon literacy program will carry some meal kits. Check mausd-anwsdnutrition.com for a complete list of Bristol/Vergennes-area summer meal locations.

If you have questions, email kathy.alexander@mausd.org.

Keely Agan is child nutrition initiatives specialist for Hunger Free Vermont. She said summer meal sites in Addison County served more than 53,000 meals to children 18 and younger last summer.

Like last year, federal waivers are in effect that allow parents and guardians to pick up food without their children being present. Also like last year, kids don’t have to consume their food at a meal site; they can take it home.

“This makes it more convenient for families and really highlights the universality of the summer meals sites,” Agan told the Independent.

Agan also stressed the importance of “P-EBT” cards that are distributed to families whose children qualified for free/reduced-price school meals and have attended a remote/hybrid school schedule. P-EBT — an Electronic Benefit Transfer card that can be use like a debit card — is meant to mitigate dollars lost when those kids are not getting free meals in school.

Families receiving P-EBT over the next few months are encouraged to use the benefit in tandem with free summer meal sites to stretch their food dollar even further, according to Agan.

Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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