Zarlengo Earns AARP Rhode Island’s Most Prestigious Volunteer Award

Published in Pawtucket Times on December 18, 2017

“To Serve and Not be Served” – Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus

AARP Rhode Island recognizes its own, Phil Zarlengo, for his decades of serving the state’s and the nation’s seniors. Over 130 family and fellow AARP Rhode Island members gathered at the Warwick Country Club at a luncheon ceremony to recognize his remarkable service to America’s largest aging advocacy group.

AARP top national officials (Joan R. Ruff, Chair of the AARP National Board of Directors, Kelly Clark, AARP Eastern Region Vice-president and Megan Hookley, AARP Vice President, Volunteerism & Services), came bringing their greetings.

Last week, Zarlengo, 71, a resident of Jamestown for over 30 years, became the 16th recipient AARP Rhode Island Ethel Percy Andrus Award for Community Service — the nonprofit group’s most prestigious and visible state volunteer award for community service.

Every year, Andrus Award recipients across the nation are chosen for their ability to enhance the lives of AARP members and prospective members, improve the community in or for which the work was performed, and inspire others to volunteer.

An Easy Pick

Zarlengo, a native of Chicopee, Massachusetts, was nominated for the Rhode Island Chapter’s prestigious award by Alan Neville, a retired executive in the financial services sector who now serves as AARP Rhode Island state president. “It was a very easy to pick Zarlengo,,” says Neville, acknowledging that “working with him has been a great privilege for me.”

“He is dedicated to public service and I consider him to be an authentic leader,” says Neville.

“As I have gotten to know him, I have come to appreciate the depth and breadth of Phil’s knowledge and experience,” says Neville, echoing many at the December 10 award ceremony who observed that the former teacher and school administrator’s volunteer efforts extend far beyond AARP to countless other regional and national groups and span decades of giving back to his community.

Zarlengo’s professional and educational credentials are impressive. He has a bachelor’s degree in Social Science from UMASS Amherst, an MA in History from Brown University, a doctorate in Management & Evaluation from the University of Connecticut and a Public Affairs Certificate from Tufts University.

Zarlengo Brings a lot to the Plate

A quick glance at his bio reveals his love for education. Zarlengo was Executive Director of Brown University’s National Education Research Lab, where he developed new models for teacher and school program evaluations disseminated across the nation. As an administrator in the Rhode Island Department of Education and the Providence School Department he monitored state and local programs for special population children. Currently, he is CEO of his own management consulting firm that evaluates and helps improve innovative school programs for low achieving students in urban schools, and is a member of the ACE Charter School Board of Directors.

Zarlengo’s award “acts as a symbol to the public that we can all work together for positive social change,” AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell told the attending. “AARP has long valued the spirit of volunteerism and the important contributions volunteers make to their communities, neighbors, and the programs they serve,” she said.

Connell considered Zarlengo a guiding light to AARP Rhode Island when he was asked to assist in organizing the first AARP Rhode Island state office in Providence. She had reached out to her former boss after working with him at Brown to serve as the aging advocacy group’s first volunteer state president.

“His advice on elderly and elderly issues was invaluable and his commitment extraordinary,” Connell says, stressing that Zarlengo “helped to put our office on the map early on, and in recognition of his work he moved swiftly on to his position on the National Board.”

Zarlengo eventually put his energies at the national level by serving on AARP National Board and Board Chair before stepping down in 2012. During his 14 years of volunteer service, he has been an energetic defender of Social Security and Medicare and a strong voice in improving healthcare quality and access for all. Since he left his national position three years ago, he still remains active in AARP in many roles, including AARP’s designee on the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, with a focus on helping older Americans prepare for natural disasters. He works closely with AARP Rhode Island’s legislative committee, bringing his understanding of complex national aging policy issues to the General Assembly when they are considering legislation impacting older Rhode Islanders.

“Nonetheless, he never left our fold, offering counsel and assistance whenever asked – and often when we didn’t ask. That’s Phil’s style and everyone who has ever worked with him here has benefited from his vision, wisdom and his warm enthusiasm,” says Connell.

Top AARP Volunteer Comes to Rhode Island

The award was presented by Joan Ruff, current AARP National Board Chair, who has worked as a executive, human resources consultant and attorney. “You have left more than a legacy of service for those of us who have followed in your footsteps,” she said, before presenting the award.

“Your instinct to emphasize the value of state offices and engines for positive social change and to focus on what we now call engaging locally was spot on. You made the case that the more engaged our membership is with AARP the more likely they are to get involved, to renew their commitment and to tell friends and family members about the value of the work we do,” noted Ruff.

“To Zarlengo’s surprise, Huff also conveyed a letter from AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins, which read in part, “Having previously served as AARP Rhode Island’s State President, as a national board member for six years and as AARP Board Chair for two years, you know as well as anyone the high level of commitment and dedication this honor represents.

“As a former state president, you were always thinking about how to make the states and national office work more closely together and how to make AARP a stronger presence in local communities across the country.

“You were instrumental in pushing for the integration of the states into AARP’s strategy development and in making AARP more of a local presence across the country. As president of AARP Foundation at the time, I was energized by your support for The Drive to End Hunger and our efforts in financial services,” Jenkins wrote.

“When AARP decided to bring Experience Corps into the AARP family of programs, you saw the benefit of serving all generations to help strengthen our communities. And, as AARP’s representative to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), you spearheaded AARP’s relief efforts in communities hit by natural disasters, leaving a legacy we continue to build on today.

Accolades, Accolades, Accolades

Dr. Reid Appleby, 38, ophthalmologist in East Greenwich who has known Zarlengo for over 48 years, calls him “a wonderful man who is dedicated to society and a friend to everyone he ever met.” It is very appropriate that he receive this prestigious award at this point in his life, says Appleby.

“It’s incredibly important to recognize his work,” says Senator Dawn Euer, representing Newport and Jamestown, noting that she had heard stories about his impact on the state’s aging policy. “It’s valuable for organizations like AARP to recognize their volunteers working to address aging issues that have an impact on the state and nation,” she said, noting that her legislative district has the highest concentration of AARP members in the Ocean State.

Senator Louis P. Dipalma, representing Little Compton, Middletown, Newport, Tiverton, was not surprised that Zarlengo was receiving AARP’s most prestigious award because “his record is impressive.”

According to Dipalma, you need more people like Zarlengo with their extensive knowledge of Social Security and Medicare with such trying times at the federal level with a GOP Congress looking to cut these programs.

When accepting his recognition, an overwhelmed Zarlengo stated that he was not ready to hang up his spurs and there was still much work to do with Congress targeting Social Security and Medicare for cuts. “ AARP has given me the opportunity to grow, to contribute, to learn and to enjoy – at a very exciting time – when the older population is rapidly increasing – you know today nationally we have surpassed the 50 million mark of seniors age 65 and over and we’re well on our way to reaching 83 million by 2080.”

AARP’ Zarlengo and tens of thousands of committed AARP volunteers throughout the nation will be there “to serve and not be served.”

Zarlengo resides in Jamestown with his wife Charlotte. They are parents of, Nancy Gilbert (who resides in Wellesley, Mass., with her husband Michael) and are grandparents of Jeffrey, Elizabeth and Abigail.

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AARP’s President Romasco Great Rhode Island Adventure

Published in Pawtucket Times, August 23, 2013

AARP’s top volunteer, President Robert G. Romasco, sees a key role for AARP in supporting the nation’s families, which is why he made a quick one-day trip to the Ocean State last week to help kick off the Back to School Celebration of RI, visiting three of the eleven sites throughout the state. Romasco came to endorse AARP Rhode Island’s strong involvement with this ongoing learning initiative. The state affiliate is a long-time Celebration Sponsor and Deborah Miller, Associate Director of Community Outreach, sits on the School Celebration’s Board of Directors.

Programs like Back to School Celebration of RI are important for AARP to strongly support, says Romasco, because of the changing demographics of its membership. Once viewed as an organization representing those in their mid-sixties and older, now aging baby boomers 50 plus make up one of the largest membership constituencies, over 100 million Americans.

AARP does not just serve the needs of these members, but their families as well, their elder parents, adult children and even grandchildren. AARP’s mission statement spotlights its focus, “issues that matter most to families such as healthcare, employment and income security, retirement planning, affordable utilities and protection from financial abuse.”

Years ago, a pair of shoes was seen as a status symbol for young students returning to school. Today it’s a backpack, says Romasco, who says that this annual community initiative gets children excited about going back to school after the long summer recess. “It’s also about helping families to prepare their children to have a successful school year,” he says.

The Back to School Celebration, in its ninth year, began with a modest effort to support children in struggling families. It all started with 300 backpacks. It has grown dramatically to 14,000 backpacks distributed this year, with local companies donating the school supplies for the initiative. Any parent will tell you that school supply costs add up, especially in large families. This assistance keeps back-to-school costs from sinking a tight family budget every fall.

A Jam Packed Schedule

On Saturday, August 17, after opening ceremonies at the William D’Abate School in Providence, Romasco traveled to the West End Community Center in the city to pass out backpacks, working side by side with AARP State Director Kathleen Connell and Phil Zarlengo of Jamestown, a past chairman of the AARP national board. From there, Romasco drove to Newport to observe backpack distribution at the East Bay Community
Action Program. While there, he toured the new facility, which provides community-based health services utilizing an innovative patient-centered approach to medical care.

Said Romasco at the opening ceremonies, “When people want to see how America can work, I say, ‘Let them come to Rhode Island … and see how a community can work together for the benefit of all families and the children who are our future.’”

Romasco concluded his visit with a luncheon in Newport with city officials and community leaders that included a presentation by Newport Director of Public Services William Riccio, who discussed the Broadway Streetscape redesign. AARP Rhode Island, as part of its statewide “complete streets” advocacy (as reported in my May 19, 2012 Commentary), supported the project, which will make Broadway more pedestrian and bike friendly while adding features embraced by retailers and business on the thoroughfare.

Breakfast at the Diner

Around 8:00 a.m., at Pawtucket’s historic Modern Diner on East Avenue, Romasco, 65, sat down with this columnist to explain the issues on the policy radar screen of the nation’s largest advocacy group.

We don’t oftentimes see powerful national leaders who oversee major aging organizations come to the Ocean State. But we did last week. As AARP President, Romasco’s 22-member volunteer Board of Directors approves all policies, programs, activities, and services and oversees a $1.5 billion operational budget for the Association’s 37 million members. The huge nonprofit, nonpartisan organization employs 2,400 employees, many based in every state and in the nation’s territories.

While many of AARP’s volunteer Board Members come up thru the rank and file in local State Chapters, this was not the case with Romasco. In 2005, at age 57, an old friend, who met him 35 years earlier when he consulted for AARP, urged him to respond to an open call for consideration for the top AARP leadership position. When the dust settled he was among “seven lucky individuals” chosen from a pool of 400 applicants.

According to Romasco, AARP brings in seven new board members every two years. “We look at a person’s diversity, not just in ethnicity and where a person lives, but what skills and points of views they bring,” he says, stressing that this creates a “good mix” on the group.

Many would consider Romasco’s appointment a very good choice. The retired businessman is a graduate from Harvard Business School with a Master of Business Administration, who previously received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Brandeis University.
During his 35 year working career, Romasco has held senior level positions at a number of prestigious national companies, including QVC, Inc., CIGNA, Inc. and J.C. Penny. Over the years at these companies, he has honed his skills in marketing, branding and organizational change. However, during his long career he did take a one-year sabbatical from his full-time job. “I actually got to see my kids go to school. I got to see them come home from the bus. ”

His presidency at the helm of AARP is very time consuming, “a full-time activity,” he quips. When responding to people who ask him if he is retired, Romasco nods, stating “I just don’t get paid anymore.”

Before becoming President, Romasco served as AARP board secretary/treasurer, and chaired the Audit and Finance Committee. He is a former member of the Board of Directors, of AARP’s Andrus Foundation.

Romasco personally gets it, that receiving a Social Security check can often times mean the difference between eating or not eating. With his mother bringing home a meager wage earned as a part-time seamstress, her survivor benefit check literally put food on the table for the young child and his sister.

His speaking schedule is jam packed, as he travels around the nation sharing his personal experiences as to the importance of Social Security impact on a family’s budget. These visits are used to get this message out: “Social Security is the only lifetime, inflation-protected guaranteed source of retirement income that most Americans will have.”

As the Congressional debate heats on Capitol Hill, as to modifying Social Security’s existing cost of living formula thru a chained CPI, Romasco warns that it’s not a minor tweak but one that can substantially reduce the amount of a retiree, a disabled person or veteran’s benefit check. According to AARP calculations, a 65 year old retiree would lose $662 over five years of retirement. After 20 years of Social Security, the benefit cut would amount to $9,139.

A chained CPI is just “bad policy, a bad idea” says, Romasco, one of the nation’s most visible aging advocates. “It is an attempt by Congress to balance the federal deficit on the back of the nation’s seniors,” he charges.

During my breakfast, Romasco tells me that AARP has unleashed one of its largest outreach efforts in its history. Its “You’ve Earned a Say,” initiative educates Americans about the policy debates on Social Security and provides them an opportunity to voice their views and concerns on the ongoing retirement policy debates in Congress. Rhode Island AARP oversees this initiative in the Ocean State (as detailed in my Commentary published Oct. 26, 2012),

Just last week, he says that petitions from 1.5 million people who voiced their opposition to the chained CPI calculations for annual COLA adjustments on 10,000 pages in 15 large boxes were carried to the House Ways and Means Committee.

Romasco says that AARP, through its successful efforts to collect these petitions from 4,000 town meetings held nationally, has enabled citizens to have an opportunity to express their opinions to their elected officials.

He smiles, noting that Congress has certainly heard from the nation’s aging baby boomer and seniors. “Congress certainly cannot ignore us with those delivered petitions.”

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.