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Joanne Corbett to step down as Elderly Services chief

ELDERLY SERVICES INC. Executive Director Joanne Corbett, left, will step down from her position this spring after 33 years at the helm of the Middlebury nonprofit. She will be succeeded by Assistant Director Kristin Bolton, right. Corbett will continue to serve ESI as a part-time social worker. Independent photo/John Flowers

MIDDLEBURY — Like its beloved golden-aged patrons, Elderly Services Inc. (ESI) has witnessed and experienced a lot of changes since birth.

The much-revered nonprofit was launched in 1981 to offer basic daycare services to seniors in one big room in the Middlebury United Methodist Church basement.

ESI now delivers comprehensive counseling, educational programming, entertainment and daycare to around 80 elders at its own spacious and modern Harry & Jeanette Weinberg Center for Elderly Services at 112 Exchange St.

Still, one thing has remained constant at ESI during the past 33 years: The able stewardship of Executive Director Joanne Corbett.

But just as a book moves its storyline through chapters, ESI will begin another one this spring with a new executive director — Kristin Bolton.

It’s a new era that will continue to include Corbett, this time in a new capacity: As a part-time social worker providing direct care to a demographic she’s now joined. At age 70, Corbett is ready for the professional transition, a gig she’d like to see last for the next 10 years.

Then it’s on to the next chapter — most likely as an Elderly Services client.

Leave ESI? For Corbett, that would be tantamount to abandoning one’s family.

“I love helping families and I love providing social, emotional and mental support to older people,” Corbett said. “And I am also, still, completely in love with ESI and the workers here. And I want to work.”

Corbett has led ESI since 1990. At that time, the organization had only seven employees and an annual budget of $180,000. Its marquee program then — as it is now — was Project Independence, a senior daycare program that had transitioned to the Congregational Church of Middlebury’s Charter House.

Thanks to judicious planning, successful fundraising and a devoted clientele, ESI has grown into its new facility, with 50 full- and part-time employees and an annual budget of more than $2 million.

“It’s a wonderful feeling of satisfaction for having been able to become a bigger service agency,” Corbett said. “We’ve been able to serve thousands of elders and families.”

Just prior to the pandemic, ESI had become the largest elder-care center in Vermont. The suite of ESI services has helped Addison County seniors remain independent, translating into one of the lowest nursing home placement rates in the state.

“I feel we’ve been doing our part to try to strengthen the community based on long-term care options,” Corbett said. “I think we’re all proud of that.”

But success can be fragile, as ESI officials learned due to forces beyond their control.

“It was really difficult to have achieved our success and our wonderful size, and then be brought to our knees by COVID-19,” Corbett said.

Given the vulnerable population is serves, ESI had to close its doors at the height of the pandemic. While catching COVID might produce a minor cold in a young, able-bodied person, the virus can be fatal for some seniors — particularly the most frail and immune-compromised.

Suddenly, the state’s preeminent senior daycare center was inactive, with no source of income. Bolton said 55% of ESI’s then-140 participants exited Project Independence. Some moved to new locations to be closer to family. Some transitioned to nursing home care. Others passed away.

“It takes a lot to build our business and clientele, and then we had to build all over again,” Corbett said.

But rather than stay shuttered until the Vermont Department of Health issued an “all clear,” ESI temporarily metamorphosized into an all-online service. With great tech support, ESI officials enrolled clients into a variety of virtual classes, seminars and musical performances. It’s a Zoom makeover that continues to allow some homebound seniors to enjoy ESI offerings from the comfort of their homes.

It would not have been possible without the veteran leadership of such ESI stalwarts as Corbett, Bolton and Ken Schoen, ESI’s activities director.

Things have largely returned to “normal,” though ESI is unflinching in its dedication to protecting its senior clients. Face masks remain ubiquitous within the ESI building and were worn during this interview.

Corbett is understandably proud of her contributions to ESI and is particularly pleased to have helped assemble a quality workforce, some of whom, like her, have been with the nonprofit for 30-plus years.

“I’ve watched us become a place of middle-aged employees, and now we are a place of a lot of senior citizen employees as we’ve all aged in place at our jobs,” she said. “At this point in time we’re a very good model of older worker success, mixed with a lot of incredible younger workers.”

ELDERLY SERVICES ASSISTANT Director Kristin Bolton, shown on the right dancing with Project Independence participant Margin Forgues, will become the Middlebury organization’s executive director when Joanne Corbett steps aside this spring.
Photo by Ron Hallman

ENTER KRISTIN BOLTON

It’s an environment that Corbett believes will continue under the leadership of Bolton, who the former hired 14 years ago as a program director.

“I had my eye on her as a possible successor, from the beginning,” Corbett said.

Bolton is grateful for the trust her boss has placed in her and is committed to carrying the ESI torch.

“I love this place and want to see it maintain, into the future, all the things that are incredible about it,” Bolton said. “I feel I have a vision of continuity.”

She believes the pandemic has only reinforced the importance of ESI and Project Independence.

“It’s a refuge for not only the participants, but also the staff and families,” she said. “Here, people can devote themselves to loving each other and the participants. It’s very heartfelt.

“Joanne, with help, has created this incredible thing, hiring special people,” Bolton added.

But she recognizes that staying the course won’t be enough in these times of uncertain funding and changing technology.

“I’m suitably impressed by the challenges ahead.”

Those challenges, she said, will include rebuilding Project Independence to pre-pandemic levels and envisioning ways to improve the ESI building. Officials are currently working with Efficiency Vermont to determine how the structure could be made more weather-tight and reliant on renewable energy.

“The business side of this is challenging because the people we serve are very frail,” Bolton noted.

Still, those who give ESI and Project Independence a try are eager to join the fold. 

“It takes a while for people to feel comfortable coming here; it’s like coming to school for the first time and you’re not 5, you’re 85,” Bolton said. “But once people are here a month, they love it here, generally. They love having their world open up again, making new friends.”

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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