RI Minority Elder Task Force Spotlights ‘Everyday Heroes’

Published in the Woonsocket Call on November 5, 2017

Last Thursday, the Rhode Island Minority Elder Task Force (RIMETF), a nonprofit group that advocates for cultural competent services for elders from minority groups, recognized “Everyday Heroes” who make a difference in the community while also raising money to provide limited emergency assistance to low-income seniors in crisis situations.

RIMETF fund raising efforts combine with grants to fulfill its mission of financially helping low-income seniors, says Susan Sweet, the nonprofit’s founder and treasurer. RIMETF provides $200 to low income seniors to help pay utility costs, rent, food, medications, clothing, furniture, personal healthcare items and other necessities of life, she says, noting that approximately 80 grants, about half going to minority applicants, are given out annually.

Sweet says, “During the last two decades, RIMETF provided more than $53,000 in grants, successfully raising approximately $7,000 at the November 2 fundraiser. Over 150 supporters in attendance from around the state came to the East Providence Cape Verdean Progressive Center to honor eleven ‘Everyday Heroes’ who made outstanding contributions to many people throughout Rhode Island.”

According to Chairperson Lori Brennan-Almeida, her nonprofit group’s fundraising efforts are fluid, changing every year as needed. “Last year the nonprofit group held a full-day learning conference on Cultural Competence in Healthcare and Social Services for nurses, social workers and Certified Nursing Assistants, attracting over 100 attendees.”

“The idea for recognizing unsung heroes who work with Rhode Island’s minority residents was tossed around for the past couple of years,” says Almeida, noting that some of the honorees of this year’s fundraiser had never been recognized for their outstanding work

Introducing RIMETF’s 2007 “Everyday Heroes”…

Kathy Blunt

After Blunt, at 74 years of age, initially interviewed at Orchard View Manor, she got a letter a week later informing her that she did not get the job. Luckily for the residents, the position became open again and she was hired at the East Providence-based nursing facility in 2010 and quickly became an “indispensable gift to residents and a team builder between departments,” say facility staff.

Joseph Caffey, Sr.

The late Joseph Caffey, Sr., a visionary for high standards of service in affordable housing during his 24 years as the President and CEO of Omni Development and a leader in the Rhode Island’s affordable housing sector, were key to his recognition by RIMETF. Caffey’s vision led him to partner with the Providence Center to bring a mental health satellite office to the Olneyville-based Valley Apartments to assist the mental health needs of the tenants. He also hired employees with social work degrees to provide clinical services to tenants.

Trudence “Trudy” Conroy

Staff at the Newport County Senior Health Insurance Program (SHIP) consider Trudy to be a model volunteer who brings her knowledge, warm wit and compassion into counseling and advice to assist Medicare eligible seniors choose a Medicare insurance plan that fits their specific health needs. Trudy has amassed almost 700 hours as a SHIP volunteer over the past two years.

Carol Corey

For over 20 years, Corey, 75, of West Warwick, has visited the sick and lonely residing in local nursing facilities and hospitals. She shops for these individuals, bringing them needed toiletries, special treats, flowers, and even small articles of clothing, all paid on her own. She is known for being “low key” and never forgetting birthdays or special occasions, and celebrating holidays with people who have no friends or family.

Garo Emdjian

In 1980 Emdjian, now 76, emigrated from Armenia to the U.S. and he has never looked back. Emdjian’s life mission now is to give back to his adopted country, for over 25 years giving countless volunteer hours to local nonprofit agencies that have included Rhode Island Meals-on-Wheels, Fox Point Senior Center, Federal Hill House, Hamilton House, the Blood Bank and Fox Point Manor. Despite the many honors he has received over the years, Emdjian will tell you he does not volunteer for the recognition but for the true love and commitment to be of service to others.

Cynthia Hiatt, Esq.

Just six months after Hiatt retired from a 37 year career serving as Chief Legal Counsel for the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights, she came back to fight discrimination and racism again by serving as one of the seven governor-appointed commissioners of the Commission. As a volunteer Hiatt meets monthly to rule on cases and presides over hearings and investigative conferences, continuing to fight to enforce antidiscrimination laws and to end discrimination against older Rhode Islanders, the disabled and people of color.

Adrienne Marchetti

Those who know Marchetti as Director of the Pawtucket Soup Kitchen, use descriptive words such as: competent, respectful, creative, talented, selfless, as well as generous, and always welcoming to those she serves. Adrienne works 7 days a week from early morning until evening cooking and serving food to some of the poorest residents and homeless individuals in Pawtucket. Even in winter, after a very long day serving those who come to her soup kitchen, she prepares a satisfying supper and what is left over, she delivers to the night shelter at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church to feed their 15 homeless residents.

Christine Reitman

For 26 years, Reitman, a Resident Service Coordinator at Property Advisory Group, has always advocated for her residents, always going above and beyond her normal duties. Recognizing the low income of her residents along with their social and health issues, she organized Saturday coffee hours, passing out needed everyday items to attendees, personally purchased from a local dollar store. The regular gatherings provide residents with a social network and informal forum to talk about personal issues.

Irene Sadlik

Coming to the United States from the Czech Republic nearly 30 years ago, Sadlik, with no formal training in health care, found her life’s passion working for the housekeeping department in a nursing facility. The former seamstress had an exceptional rapport with the residents, quickly responding to their needs and becoming their tireless advocate. Ultimately, to further her goal of working with older Rhode Islander’s she left her job at the nursing facility and opened up her own non-skilled home care agency. She has since taken a cancer patient into her home to try to give her a chance to enjoy her final days.

Mary Kay Uchmanowicz

Uchmanowicz, a Board Certified Audiologist who founded the Smithfield-based Twin Rivers Hearing Health in Smithfield in 2001, uses her empathy and specialized training to treat hearing problems of her older patients. Over the years, she has collected discarded hearing aids and brought them to the Philippines, spending weeks screening and fitting underprivileged children and adults with these donated hearing aids. “It is a privilege to help others,” says the audiologist who volunteers her time providing ear checks, audiometric testing, cleaning hearing aids, and answering questions at North Providence Senior Center and the Villa at St Antoine.

Henrietta “Henrie” Tonia White-Holder

White-Holder, founder and CEO of Higher Ground International, is committed to bringing clean water and sanitation to her native Liberia. Through the nonprofit organization, she opened the new RUKIYA (uplifting) Center on the south side of Providence, which focuses on programs for African immigrants, elders and youth, literacy and workforce issues. Henrie served on the United Way’s Executive Director Leadership Circle, received the Providence Newspaper Guild Public Service Award, the Extraordinary Woman Award for Education, and was conferred the RI Liberian Humanitarian Award.

For more details regarding the work of the RI Minority Elder Task Force or to make a donation, write RIMETF, 5 Leahy Street, Rumford, RI 02916 or call Lori Brennan Almeida, Chairperson, at 401-497-1287.

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Rhode Islanders Give Tips to Graduates

Published in the Woonsocket Call on May 14, 2017

During the month of May, commencement speakers will be addressing the graduating Class of 2017 at Colleges, Universities and higher learning institutions in Rhode Island and throughout the nation. Robed graduating seniors will listen attentively to these 10 minute speeches usually given by very well-known lawmakers, judges, television personalities and business CEOs who offer tips on how the graduate can live a successful and fulfilling life. The graduate can only hope that this advice that might just propel them into a more rewarding personal and professional life.

Traditionally this notable, successful, and stimulating figure, is oftentimes well-known in the community. Larger institutions may choose speakers of national or international renown, but sometimes this recognition comes at a great cost, commanding high speaking fees. Locally, Brown University, unique among Ivy League institutions, features graduating seniors, rather than outside dignitaries, as their commencement speakers.

So, I suggest to Presidents of Colleges and Universities, with your tight operating budgets, you can save a little money by not bringing in high-paid commencement speakers with another alternative. As can be seen below, there are many potential candidates in Rhode Island communities that fly below the selection committee’s radar screen and can give college graduates very sound strategies for success gleaned from their everyday life experiences. The messages gleaned from average every day Rhode Islanders will most surely give a road maps on how the graduating senior can reach their potential in a very challenging world.

Eric J. Auger, 48, Pawtucket, Co-Founder/Creative Director for TEN21 Productions. “Having been an active artist and exhibiting my work since the age of 4, I can look back at 44 years of trials and errors that have influenced me to become the artist that I am today. My advice to anyone starting out is to follow your intuition and embrace all the success and failures that it may bring you. Living through and learning from these experiences is what opens your eyes to your true potential.”

Michael Bilow, Providence, Writer at Motif Magazine, “Only you are the ultimate judge of what you want. Take advice from people who want to help you, but don’t worry about pleasing them. Money is important to have enough to be independent, but not as an end in itself. Never take a job or a romantic partner just because others expect it of you. Be nice, but not too nice. Don’t lie to yourself. Worry less. You have a right to be happy.”

Natelie Carter, 73, Cumberland, Director of Operations for Blackstone Valley Tourism Council.
“One of the oldest pieces of wisdom ever dispensed is one that has guided my life “Know Thyself.” It still directs my life that has been filled with remarkable events and few regrets. However, there is the wisdom of Edna St. Vincent Millay to learn from “I am glad that I paid so little attention to good advice; had I abided by it I might have been saved from some of my most valuable mistakes.”

Greg Gerritt, 63, Providence, Head of Research for ProsperityForRI.com. “Climate Change is the existential crisis of our time. Be ready to resist the oligarchy when they seek to prevent protest and work to protect their fortunes. Be ready to resist the oligarchy when they crank up the false news and the war machine. If you shut down the war machine and truly stop climate change your lives will be better. If you do not, get ready for a hot and violent planet and community.”

Maureen O’Gorman, Warwick, Adult Correctional Institute GED Teacher. “Meredith Grey, fictional philosophizing doctor said: “The story of our evolution is the story of what we leave behind.” Human tails no longer exist and the appendix isn’t functional. Every choice we make comes at the cost of choices we didn’t make. Reinventing ourselves can’t happen without discarding something behind as we move forward. Honor the past, but do not live in it.”

Nora Hall, 72, North Kingston, freelance writer. “Empathy may be the most important life skill you can develop. It enables you to “put yourself in another’s shoes” and makes you a great leader.”

Everett Hoag, 63, North Providence, President of Fountain Street Creative. “Advice to new artists – Believe in yourself and your work. Explore as many forms as you can. Discover art comes from inside and as long as you have the skills, true art will emerge. Keep creating and create what is true to you, never stop or be discouraged by what others say… Designers — we make the world more beautiful. More functional. Safer. More special. The more of ‘you’ that goes into your work, the more original it becomes; there’s something magical about that.”

John Kevorkian, 63, East Greenwich, Management Psychologist/Business Coach. “Over the years, I’ve noticed that so much of success comes from simply showing up. Be aware, get involved, get engaged with what is important to you. Be there and be! Be truly interested in understanding the other’s viewpoint and situation. Ask questions and listen to learn what you don’t know and then you will be well prepared to confidently voice opinions and be helpful. Be a catalyst. It is easier to make things happen if you don’t care who gets the credit.”

Larry Monastesse, 65, Pawtucket, Director of Administration, Coastline Employee Assistant Program (EAP). “Passion and Education is the Key. Mistakes happen- learn from them but do not quit. Keep your goals front and center. Have the courage to follow you heart, it is the true measure of your success. Time is limited, share with family and friends. They will be with you on your lifelong journey. Make time for yourself and give back to society in some form that you are comfortable with and enjoy. Do dream and enjoy the ride.”

Steven R. Porter, 52, Glocester, A college diploma is treated like the end of an educational learning journey, but truthfully, it’s just the start. Those who will be the most successful in life never stop reading, studying or acquiring new skills. The world is a rapidly changing place, and higher education does a good job of preparing you for what the world was like, not what the world is going to be. Stay positive and aggressive.

Debra Rossetti, over 50, Central Falls, Staff Developer/Literacy, New York City Department of Education. “You can and will make a difference in our society and world, This day is a special and important milestone in your life. You have accomplished much to be standing where you are now, but your journey has just begun. You have much more to do and challenges to bear in your years ahead. Transform yourself in to the person you aspire to be, be ready for change, think forward and move forward. Continue to educate yourself. Life is a journey with lessons to learn at every corner. Take advantage of opportunities to grow your mind and pursue your dreams. Believe in yourself, believe in others, always be humble and kind.”

Randy Sacilotto, 55, Cumberland, Navigant Credit Unions, Vice President, Community Development. “My mom told me to remember to love people and use things, never the other way around. This may seem pretty simple and logical. Yet there are times we may want to do the reverse. Remember that it is by genuine caring interaction with another human soul that we learn and laugh and grow. And nothing you will own will ever visit you when you’re sick, hold you when you’re sad, or celebrate your accomplishments.”

Susan Sweet, 75, Rumford, former state employee. “Make your own trail and avoid the well-worn path. Find interests and passions and live them. Create purpose in your life. Do something good, something useful in your life. Contribute to the happiness and well-being of other beings. Let Death be your advisor.”

Patricia Zacks, 63, Pawtucket, Owner of Camera Werks: Never be afraid of trying new things. Hardships and setbacks are part of life, but it is how we deal with them that can make all the difference. Obstacles may be opportunities in disguise, and change oftentimes leads to new roads, exciting journeys and a time of self discovery. Follow your bliss.

DEA’s Grimaldi Hangs Up His Spurs

Published in Pawtucket Times, January 25, 2015

With 40 years in state government under his belt, including 29 years at Elderly Affairs, Larry Grimaldi begins to move into his next stage of life, publicly announcing his retirement earlier this week. The retirement date, Feb. 6, is set in stone, his papers to personnel filed.

Sixty-five year old Grimaldi, who currently serves as Chief, Program Development at the state’s Division of Elderly Affairs (DEA), looks forward to his retirement next month, but with “mixed emotions.” While the North Providence resident is satisfied with his professional accomplishments over his career, in retirement “there is an anticipation of the unknown.” It’s not an uncommon experience for those planning to “hang up their spurs” after successful careers, he says.

Once retired, “I will take a little time to breathe and look around for things I just might want to do,” says Grimaldi, noting that first on his short list is to drive across the country in April with his wife, Katherine, in a small SUV. Not a bad decision with lower gas prices.

Grimaldi has no regrets as to how his career at DEA panned out. “It was marvelous,” he tells this columnist.

Throughout the Years

After graduating from the University of Rhode Island in 1970 with a Bachelors degree in Journalism, Grimaldi worked for Providence-based companies Davol Rubber Company as a Quality Control Inspector and, three years later as a technical writer at BIF Industries. But he would leave the private sector to work as a Revenue Officer for the state’s Division of Taxation from 1975 to 1986.

A job advertisement for the position of Communications Coordinator at the state’s Department of Elderly Affairs (now a Division within the Department of Human Services) would catch Grimaldi’s attention. He jumped at the chance to apply. “It would really allow me the opportunity to put my college education and communication skills to good use,” he remembers.

Grimaldi learned a lot about the state’s aging network, honing his communication skills and building relationships. The late William Speck took him under his wing, teaching him the art of disseminating information to seniors and their caregivers, elected officials, and to the aging network, too.

According to Grimaldi, the statewide DEA information and public outreach campaign for the roll-out of the Medicare Part D program in 2006 received an Innovations in Health Care Award from RI Quality Partners (the federally designated Medicare Quality Improvement Organization for Rhode Island).

Putting his writing skills to good use, for over 27 years Grimaldi penned over 600 “Rhode Island Senior Beat” columns that appeared in many of the state’s daily and weekly newspapers. Since last year, the prolific writer produced over 60 weekly columns, “Taking Charge,” that appeared in the Providence Journal.

Grimaldi is also responsible for producing the nationally acclaimed ‘Senior Journal’ on the state’s public access cable. Since he took the helm as DEA’s information officer, more than 620 programs have been broadcast. Over 75 older volunteers have “lent their ideas, time, talent, and unique perspective” to this effort, he says, noting that this November the show celebrated 25 years on the air.

In 2012, DEA’s cable show received the “Volunteers Matter Award” from the Washington-based National Association of State Units on Aging and Disabilities, says Grimaldi, noting that it was one of three programs recognized at that conference that year.

During his DEA career, Grimaldi was responsible for providing an estimated 300 monthly trainings to the state’s Information and Referral Specialists and professionals in the aging network. He brought DEA’s greetings and information to United Way and the POINT (Aging and Disability Resource Center for Rhode Island) events and to local health fairs and expos.
As his final retirement day approaches on February 6, 2015, Grimaldi says that he will miss his DEA relationships and those in the aging network that have developed over the years. “They are exceptionally dedicated people,” he says, noting that they now have to do more work with less resources.

Colleagues Say Their Goodbys

Grimaldi “has been the face of DEA for decades,” says DEA Director Charles Fogarty. “He is a warm, caring, and energetic man who has a real passion for helping older Rhode Islanders live full and productive lives. To thousands of seniors over the years he became a trusted friend on matters they cared about most. He really represents the best in public service in Rhode Island,” notes the newly appointed DEA Director.

Former DEA Director Corinne Calise Russo, who now serves as Deputy Director of the state’s Department of Human Services, describes Grimaldi as the “consummate professional.” He is a “great trainer with exceptionally strong people skills,” says the Warwick resident who was former director at the North Providence-based Salvatore Mancini Senior Center.

According to Russo, Grimaldi was key to getting DEA’s widely used pocket manual out to the public on a timely manner each year. “He was actually like a one person production line for this manual, compiling information, ensuring accuracy, and designing it, even negotiating with the printer for a good price and product. It is a “wonderful resource for families, physician offices, community partners and elected officials”, she says.

Susan Sweet, a passionate advocate for older Rhode islanders, says that Grimaldi “fulfilled his responsibilities admirably because he took those responsibilities seriously. He has been the information guru at DEA. Nothing could be more important”

His columns provided accurate information and guidance to older persons, people with disabilities, their families and the general public, Sweet says, giving “trustworthy and helpful tips and thoughtful advice with a cheerful lilt and a timely presence.”

Paula Parker, LCSW, Assistant Director at DEA, agrees with Sweet’s assessment of Grimaldi’s writing skills. “I have been awed by his commitment to accurate, current and effective communication about aging issues for both the public community and for his colleagues at DEA and other state agencies”, she says. “I think that Larry’s most impressive skill is his ability to re-frame complex issues (such as Medicare Part D, Social Security retirement benefits, and other governmental programs) in language that is clear, concise and understandable to most people”, adds Parker.

Grimaldi certainly earned his spurs serving under eight DEA Directors. He has earned the right to hang them up.

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

Regular Folks Give Advice to Graduates

Published in Pawtucket Times, May 23, 2014

This month, commencement speakers at Rhode Island’s Colleges and Universities will give the Class of 2014 their tips on how they can successfully find their professional niche, in a state with the distinction of having the worst employment rate in the nation and continues to be one of the last states to see an economic revival.  Rhode Islanders are also known for their inferiority complex and general attitude about the quality of life in the state.

Robed graduating seniors will sit listening closely to commencement speeches, given by very well-known lawmakers, judges, television personalities and Business CEOs, detailing their observations and advice, and how if closely followed, just might give the graduates a more rewarding personal and professional life.

 Typically a commencement speech (the length being about 10 minutes) is given by a notable, successful, stimulating figure well-known in the community, nationally or internationally. While some colleges and universities may enhance their prestige by bringing in high-profile speakers (University of Rhode Island, Rhode Island School of Design, Roger Williams University, and Providence College) sometimes at great cost, others like Brown University, unique among Ivy League institutions, features graduating seniors, rather than outside dignitaries, as their commencement speakers. This year, Rhode Island College,
under graduate and graduate commencement speakers are Rhode Islanders.

So, I say to Presidents of Colleges and Universities, with your tight budgets you can save a little money by not bringing in high paid commencement speakers. As can be seen below, there are many potential    commencement speakers in local communities throughout the state who fly below the radar screen and can give college graduates sound strategies for success gleaned from their life experiences. They give road maps on how one can live a more healthy fulfilling life, mature in a way to realize their potential and age gracefully in a challenging and quickly changing world.

Jesse Nemerofsky, 60, Providence, Professional Commercial Photographer. “Always remember that everyone you meet in life can be a potential or future client. This being said, a positive introduction of yourself is a valuable way to be called to work together on projects, even to be hired for future jobs. George H. W. Bush, 41st President of the United States, has stated in interviews that when he meets someone he gets their business card, and at birthdays, Christmas time, or when the person is honored, he sends them a personal note. By taking time to acknowledge people over the lifetime of his career, the former President is highly respected by those he has encountered, even if his political position or business venture was successful or not.   Honesty and representing your capabilities is of course of the utmost importance, and small gestures like sending a personal note can ultimately have great impact, but excellence in your work should be your main goal.”

Michael Cassidy, 66, Pawtucket, Retired. “As you go into the ‘real’ world from the sheltered ‘world of college’ don’t be too quick to judge the new people you meet in the work place.  People come in all types, sizes, shapes, temperaments, personalities, ages, and backgrounds; and they all have their own experiences from which you can learn. If you are smart enough to listen to what others have to offer, you can learn from them not only what to do, but what not to do. And most times learning what not to do is the most valuable lesson you can have.”

Olon Reeder, 55, North Providence, Reeder Associates Public Relations. “Become adaptable to constant changes in your life. Today’s global environment demands that you must become faster, better and smarter and compete with yourself and everyone else to survive socially. You have to embrace non-stop learning, empower yourself with your own resources, have an independent attitude and create value for who you really are and what you want to be to shape your quality of life for the future!”

Michelle Godin, 50, Vice President, New England Economic Development Services, Inc. “Live each day of your life with integrity. Whether in your personal life or professional life, integrity will define you as a person.  Never waiver.  When your days on earth are ended, it is your integrity that others will remember.   Those who live with integrity will be fondly remembered and missed, because with integrity comes many other admirable qualities such as compassion, empathy, tolerance, and understanding.  Those lacking integrity will be discussed with disdain and quickly forgotten.  Choose to become exemplary.”

Paul Audette, 85, Pawtucket, semi-retired businessman.The Youth of today — from puberty to whatever age one reaches maturity – tend to see life as it pertains to them, yet each person is responsible for him or herself.  While the youth may have the knowledge, they lack the life experience which is the main factor in making good sound judgments that ultimately affect (your) well-being as well as that of your loved ones. While experience cannot be taught, it cannot be overlooked as a major component in making sound decisions that affect your future.experience comes from living – and life is a journey.”

Joan Retsinas, 67, Providence, a writer. “Savor, savor, savor. Savor the sunshine, and the rain. Savor your friends, your family, your colleagues. Nurture the people close to you. Be a friend. Fall in love. If you fall out of love, fall in again. Read “Winnie the Pooh” to a child. Eat ice cream. Ride a bike. Swim in the ocean. Laugh. As for fame, fortune, and success, don’t fret. They don’t really matter.”

Rick Wahlberg, 61, Senior Project Manager, Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island. Be Useful, there is no feeling like making the world a better place. Be Aware, strike a balance between career, family, friends, and community. Be Grateful for what you have, don’t be jealous of what you don’t have, and share.

Wendy Jencks, 61, Cumberland, Visitor Center Manager, Blackstone Valley Visitor Center. “There may be a time in young people’s lives when they are nervous to take a risk, don’t be afraid to take a chance. If an opportunity/life experience arises and you want it, take it even if it is unconventional. You may not get another opportunity again. Also, a person’s first job is not the end all be all. Your dream job may actually be something you did not study. People confine themselves to their own walls.”

Larry Sullivan, 49, Pawtucket, Director, Net Compliance Solution’s technical & consulting services. “Recognize opportunity. If you can’t identify opportunities, then they are very likely to sneak past you unnoticed. Most people’s search criteria is so narrow in focus that it can essentially blind them to opportunities available right in front of their face. It’s the old “can’t see the forest for the trees” scenario. Also, see yourself as a valuable asset. Your self-image will make a huge difference in the type of opportunities you attract to yourself. If you see yourself as a valuable asset, and you present yourself as such, others will see you that way as well.”

Denise Panichas, 50, Woonsocket, Executive Director of The Samaritans of Rhode Island. “Respect cannot be given when asked for, it has to be earned.” This is something you learn later in life. How do you earn respect from those around you? By being true to yourself – your values, beliefs and most importantly to your commitments to family, friends and the community.”

Ken McGill, 51, Pawtucket, Register of Voters, City of Pawtucket. “Find time to give back to your community. In the years to come you will be looking for a good job, getting married, having children and getting on with life. Never forget those in need in your community. Mentoring children, giving time to a soup kitchen, volunteering to help civic groups in your city or town or just helping a neighbor will give you more reward than any salary or position in the corporate world.“

Gail Solomon, 59, Pawtucket, Gail Solomon, Inc., a graphic design company. “You’re not the most unqualified or least knowledgeable person in the room. Everyone else thinks they are. And anyway it’s much more elegant to ask questions than to behave like you know all the answers. Because nobody does. Ever.”

Susan Sweet, 72, Rumford, former state administrator, non- profit lobbyist and advocate. “In the short space that we are in the world, we must create meaning in our lives by contributing to the happiness and well-being of other people and other sentient beings. To do good and useful work, caring and acting for the betterment of others is the true goal of life.”

Bob Billington, President of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council who received his Doctorate in Education from Johnson & Wales University in 2005, says that “Star Power Sells” when seeking out a commencement speaker. “We have regular people walking amongst us who do very extraordinary things everyday but they may never get a chance to give a commencement speech at a college or university,” he notes.

If so, I say that it’s a shame.

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

Oxfam Report: Elites Get Richer; Poor Poorer

Published in Pawtucket Times, January 24, 2014

Just a week before the 44th annual gathering of the global elite at World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Oxford, England-based Oxfam International released a scathing report claiming that global wealth rests in the hands of just a few very rich people.

According to the report released on Jan. 20, co-authored by Ricardo Fuentes-Nieva, Head of Research, Oxfam Great Britain and Nicholas Galasso, Research and Policy Advisor, Oxfam America, 85 of the wealthiest people own the same amount of wealth as the bottom half of the world’s population.

Widening Income Gap Between Wealthy and Poor

Oxfam’s 31 page report, “Working for the Few,” warns that almost half of the world’s wealth concentrated in just one percent of the population, is a real threat to inclusive political and economic systems, and compounds other economic inequalities – such as those between women and men. The authors say, left unchecked, political institutions are undermined and governments overwhelmingly serve the interests of economic elites – to the detriment of the poor and middle class.

Today the gap between the rich and poor has become wider, with the wealth of the one percent richest people in the world amounting to $110 trillion, adds the report, around 65 times the total wealth of the bottom half of the world’s population. In the United States, the wealthiest one percent captured 95 percent of post-financial crisis growth since 2009, while the bottom 90 percent became poorer.

“Without a concerted effort to tackle inequality, the cascade of privilege and of disadvantage will continue down the generations,” warns Oxfam’s Executive Director, Winnie Byanyima, in her statement announcing the release of her group’s report. She leads the world-wide development organization comprised of 17 organizations working in 90 countries to find solutions to poverty and related injustice around the world.

Byanyima, a grass-roots activist, human rights advocate and a world recognized expert on women’s rights, who plans to attend the Davos meeting, observes, “It is staggering that in the 21st Century, half of the world’s population owns no more than tiny elite whose numbers could all sit comfortably in a single train carriage.”

“We cannot hope to win the fight against poverty without tackling inequality. Widening inequality is creating a vicious circle where wealth and power are increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few, leaving the rest of us to fight over crumbs from the top table,” says Bryanyima.

Bryanyima adds, “In developed and developing countries alike, we are increasingly living in a world where the lowest tax rates, the best health and education and the opportunity to influence are being given not just to the rich but also to their children.”

“Without a concerted effort to tackle inequality, the cascade of privilege and of disadvantage will continue down the generations,” states Bryanyima, noting that “We will soon live in a world where equality of opportunity is just a dream.”

Specific policies have widened the income gap between the rich and poor over the last decades, including financial deregulation, tax havens and secrecy, anti-competitive business practice, lower tax rates on high incomes and investments and cuts or underinvestment in public services for the majority. For instance, since the late 1970s, tax rates for the richest have fallen in 29 of the 30 countries for which data are available. In these places the rich not only get more money but also pay less tax on it.

Oxfam’s report calls on those gathered at this week’s World Economic Forum to take tackle inequity by cracking down on financial secrecy and tax dodging, including investing in universal education and healthcare; demand a living wage in all companies, and agreeing a global goal to end extreme inequality in every country.

Inequity in Our Back Yard, Too

Commenting on Oxfam’s report release, Robert B. Reich, former Secretary of Labor under President Bill Clinton who now serves as Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, notes that inequality in the United State is not “that far off” from other countries. “Here, the 400 richest Americans have more wealth than the bottom 150 million Americans put together. We’re getting close to a tipping point where inequality undermines our economy (because the vast middle class doesn’t have the purchasing power to keep the economy going), hurts our democracy (because a handful of extremely rich individuals can control politics), and causes most people to feel the dice are loaded against them, he says.

Reich’s award-winning documentary “Inequality for All” — now out on iTunes, DVD, and On Demand — explains the roots of inequality, in the U.S. and around the world. For details, go to http://www.inequalityforall.com.

Kate Brewster, Executive Director of Rhode Island’s The Economic Progress Institute, notes that Oxfam’s report puts the growing problem of inequality on the world stage. “As the experts point out, inequality is not inevitable, but a manmade problem that can be tackled with policies that reward everyone for hard work, not just a few,” she says.

“Rhode Island has not escaped this disturbing trend,” states Brewster. According to a report issued by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the Ocean State experienced the 9th largest increase in income inequality in the country between the late 1970s and mid-2000s. During this time the income of the top fifth rose by 99 percent while the bottom fifth grew by only 12 percent, she says.

Legislative Fixes to Reduce Income Gap

Brewster says there are two “two concrete policies” that the Rhode Island General Assembly could enact this legislative session that would immediately boost the income of low-income Rhode Islanders and begin to reverse this trend, specifically increasing the state’s minimum wage and increasing the refund available through the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit. “The latter would not only boost the income of low-wage workers but also bring more equity to a tax structure that has provided significant tax breaks to wealthy individuals and businesses for years,” she says.

Advocate Susan Sweet, a former state official and lobbyist for nonprofit groups, notes that while Rhode Island and the nation don’t have an overwhelming majority of citizens suffering the worst extremes of poverty such as starvation, homelessness and societal abandonment that exists in some other countries, we have our share. We also have a large and expanding underclass of counter culture and underground economy that serves to hurt the cohesiveness of society,” says the Rumford resident.

Sweet worries about the income gap between the poor and wealthy that will happen in years to come because of state policies. “The state took millions away from retired people who are receiving an average of $25,000 a year in their state pension and are in their seventies on average. The state gambled on the Studio 38 boondoggle, sold these risky bonds to unknown parties, and want to pay these gambling debts back to the investors because they have a ‘moral obligation’ to do so. Where is the moral obligation to those who performed their responsibilities by working for the state for many years with the promise of a secure retirement?” she says.

And what does she expect to see coming out of the General Assembly? “This year we will hear rhetoric to raise the absurdly low minimum wage in the nation and in the state, but not enough to give workers a decent living wage; we will hear promises to improve education, while students that have tried to achieve under great odds will be denied high school diplomas while the educational infrastructure remains in place and unchanging; we will be assured that the key to R.I.’s unyielding high unemployment rate has been found – again; and we will continue on the path of inequality.”

Oak Hill resident, Lisa Roseman Beade, an academic tutor who is been active in Progressive causes, says the U.S. has the widest income gap of any developing nation. “’Trickle down economics’ has turned into “vacuum upwards economics”. We need fair wages and fair and equitable taxation rates to circulate the money. That’s what puts people to work and will reduce the widening income gap between the nation’s wealthy and poor. Instead, workers, who have been breaking the bar in productivity year after year, now receive only 1 percent of the record breaking profits.”

Beade calls for keeping corporate dollars out of politics and supports the creation of a single payer healthcare system that would make healthcare a civil right.

She believes that change will only come when “we all stop the scape-goating teachers and workers and public employees and demand that we all have good wages, good benefits and good pensions and by restoring state levels to those pre-1998. If lower taxes create jobs, and taxes have never been lower…where are the jobs?”

“A vibrant, safe and livable community with good community services can only come if everyone earns enough and everyone pays their fair share of taxes. Let’s make paying taxes patriotic again,” says Beade.

A Final Note…

It’s time to hammer out a comprehensive legislative fix to reducing the wide income gap between the Ocean State’s wealthy and poor. Let those declared candidates for Governor come out with detailed briefing papers, unveiling their comprehensive approach to enable Rhode Islanders to finally make a living wage. That is tell the voters how you will close the income gap between the state’s have and have nots. Let the debate begin.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a writer who covers aging, health care, medical issues and Rhode Island’s political scene.

Aging Groups Gear Up to Oppose Cuts in Social Security

Published in Pawtucket Times & Woonsocket
Call, October 18, 2013

Worried Americans woke up to good news yesterday morning. After weeks of political bickering Congress had finally hammered out a political compromise, one that would keep the nation from free-falling off the fiscal cliff.

Over the weeks, Democrats and political pundits had warned that not raising the nation’s debt ceiling by Oct. 17 could lead to the nation’s credit rating being downgraded. If this occurred, average Americans might see higher interest rates for mortgages, car loans, student loans and even credit cards. Higher business expenses, due to expensive borrowing rates, could even force businesses to stop hiring and start laying people off. Housing prices would drop and retail sales slow.

Because of Congressional gridlock, furloughed federal workers, along with the unemployed, would have less money to spend, reinforcing the negative impact on the nation’s economy.

House GOP leadership, catering to its Tea Party allies, led a political impasse between the Democratic-led Senate and President Obama, with demands that the president’s signature “Obamacare” healthcare law be defunded.

But, on the heels of an 11th hour deal, late Wednesday evening, the Senate passed, 81 to 18, a bipartisan temporary fix, supported by a large majority of Senate Republicans, ending the partial federal government shutdown and the threat of default. Hours later, the Tea Party-controlled House conceded to the political reality that any attempt to derail the Senate compromise would have a serious backlash against the GOP brand, passing the measure by 285 to 144.

On day 16 of the closing of the federal government, President Obama with the flick of his pen signed the bill ending the threat of the nation defaulting on paying its bills along with allowing hundreds of thousands of federal workers to return to their jobs.

This agreement raised the U.S. debt ceiling until Feb. 7 and gave the Treasury Department flexibility to temporarily extend its borrowing if Congress does not act before that date. Also, the measure keeps the federal government’s doors open until Jan. 15.

At the end of the Congressional vote, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) and his House Tea Party allies saw their efforts fail to delay or to scrap “Obamacare.” However, the GOP Senator did get lawmakers to make a tiny political concession to require the government to verify the eligibility of people receiving federal subsidies under the health care program.

Domestic Entitlements on Chopping Block

Of concern to aging groups, the agreement calls for creating a 12 member House-Senate bipartisan panel that would identify long-term deficit cuts, either overhauling the nation’s tax code or by identifying cuts in entitlement programs like Medicaid, Medicare or Social Security. The panel, led by Budget Committee heads Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, is charged with completing its task by December 13, but they are not required to come to an agreement.

“While Washington’s latest self-imposed crisis is over, this is no time to celebrate as another set of random deadlines loom, says Max Richtman, President and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, remarking “Here we go again.”

“Yet another committee has been formed in which Social Security and Medicare are the big bargaining chips on Washington’s political poker table, noted Richtman, making it clear for him the “economic security of millions of Americans isn’t a game” .

“And while the vast majority of the American people do not support cutting Social Security and Medicare benefits, the President and some in Congress appear ready to do just that through proposals like the Chained CPI, expanding Medicare means testing to the middle class and raising the retirement age,” warns Richtman.

According to Richtman, President Obama stated “what’s good for the American people” is what should guide this next debate. “Cutting benefits to millions of middle-class Americans who took the biggest hit in the recession clearly does not fit that stated goal,” he says.

In a letter to Congress, Richtman, called for other ways to rein in the nation’s budget huge deficient rather than putting Social Security on the chopping block. Richtman suggests that “instead of cutting benefits, comprehensive reforms in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that are containing costs in the entire health care sector, including Medicare and Medicaid, ought to be given a chance to work and to be strengthened.”

“Moreover, Social Security does not face an immediate crisis and is not driving either the short-term deficit or long-term debt. We believe Social Security should be strengthened for the long-term by raising the current payroll tax cap on earnings,” adds Richtman.

AARP, the nation’s largest aging advocacy group, was quick to comment on the bipartisan-brokered legislative deal, saying that “AARP is pleased that the President and Congress temporarily averted an economic crisis that threatened our members’ access to Social Security and Medicare, but we are deeply concerned that harmful cuts to these vital programs are on the table for a new round of budget negotiations.”

The statement acknowledges that “some Congressional lawmakers want to trade cuts to Medicare and Social Security benefits to pay for other government spending. Others are calling for cuts to these vital programs to reduce the deficit.” However, according to AARP polls, “the American people, on the other hand, across all ages and party lines, are strongly opposed to cuts to Social Security and Medicare.”

“Whether it is cutting their programs to reduce the deficit or using them as a piggy bank to pay for other government spending, their message to the President and Congress is clear: “Don’t bargain away my Medicare and Social Security benefits,” says the AARP statement.

As the House/Senate Bipartisan Committee begins to organize, AARP is preparing to mobilize its massive membership to block any attempts to slash Social Security bennies or cut Medicare, specifically through a Chained CPI to determine cost of living increases and any reductions in Medicare benefits.

Susan Sweet, a well-known aging advocate clearly sees that a Congressional tinkering with Social Security could severely hit the pocketbooks of older Rhode Islanders. She asks, “Is it too much to ask that seniors, disabled people and veterans not pay the price of huge farm subsidies for agribusiness corporations, disgraceful and unnecessary tax benefits for gargantuan oil companies that are making their biggest profits ever, and wasteful pentagon spending for projects in war zones that are either never built or are soon destroyed?”

She calls on Rhode Island’s Congressional delegation to “stay strong and not compromise on keeping Medicare and Social Security fulfill its promises to seniors, disabled people and veterans by keeping benefits at current levels.”

“Dollars to cut the federal deficit might just come from extra revenues which could be generated from allowing Medicare to negotiate with drug companies and lifting the Social Security payroll tax cap so that wealthy people pay the same rate as middle class and poor people,“ she says.

AARP Gears Up for a Fight

This week AARP launched a series of radio and print ads opposing a Chained CPI Social Security benefit cut and harmful cuts to Medicare in the nonprofit organization’s latest discussion of the nation’s fiscal issues. The print and radio ads target members of the House and Senate in 18 states. The ads follow letters to Congress and the White House, as well as postcards, e-mails and calls to members of Congress opposing a budget deal that would balance the budget on the backs of older Americans.

“Americans have paid into Medicare and Social Security and they’re tired of their hard-earned benefits being used as bargaining chips in another last-minute budget deal,” said AARP Senior Vice President Joyce Rogers. “They deserve responsible solutions that will strengthen Medicare and Social Security now and for future generations, not harmful cuts that will hurt all of us.”

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues. His weekly commentaries can be found on his blog, herbweiss.wordpress.com. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

Gridlock Threatens Elder Programs, Services

Published in Pawtucket Times, October 11, 2013

At press time, this week continued heated partisan bickering on Capitol Hill that threatens to unravel a fragile economy, along with putting the brakes to an economic upturn that slowly was pushing the nation out of its financial doldrums. With this stand-off, a partial shutdown of the federal government continues. The Republican-controlled House, captured by the ultra-right Tea Party, has refused to budge, opposing the passage of a continuing resolution (CR) to fund government agencies past Sept. 30. House Republican leadership has demanded that passage of the CR must be tied to either the repeal or partially dismantling of President Obama’s signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act. The Democratic President along with a Senate Democratic leadership say no.

Meanwhile, the Democratic-controlled Senate passed a “clean” CR to provide funding through Nov. 15, not putting ACA on the GOP’s chopping block. Even if both legislative chambers sort out differences and hammer out a compromise agreement to open the doors of the federal government, this would not shield the nation from the disastrous impact of the impending second round of sequester cuts and a Oct. 17 deadline for the government to raise the debt ceiling. No action means a first-ever default on the nation’s debt that could send the stock market tumbling and push the nation’s and the world’s economy into a tailspin.

Treasury officials say that congressional deadlock and no action will result in the federal government running out of cash to pay its bills if Congress does not act to raise the nation’s debt ceiling this month.

Get Your House in Order

With the debt crisis looming, AARP Executive Vice President Nancy LeaMond called on Congressional lawmakers to settle the debt ceiling debate to avoiding default on the nation’s debt, specifically to protect the retirement of seniors and future generations.

In her letter, LeaMond expressed concern that any delay in raising the nation’s debt limit may unnecessarily increase borrowing costs, negatively impact retirement savings accounts and harm the nation’s fragile economy.

“Our members are worried that the benefits they have earned may be cut as part of a deal to reduce the deficit, fund government operations, or increase the debt ceiling, and they are increasingly worried that if there is no agreement very soon, they may not receive their Social Security checks and may lose access to their health care,” noted LeaMond.

Ten days ago, the nation entered a government shutdown, forcing furloughs of 800,000 workers, without pay, and suspending services. The last time this occurred was 17 years ago during the Clinton administration. The Congressional impasse has closed national parks and monuments, federally owned museums, such as the Smithsonian, offices overseas that give visas to foreigners hoping to visit the United States, and even many federal regulatory agencies.

So, how does this impact programs and services for older Americans? Simply put, impact on programs and benefits may vary throughout the federal bureaucracy.

The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services will furlough over 40,512 of its 78, 198 employees. The largest percentage of these employees comes from “grant-making and employee-intensive agencies,” such as the Administration for Community Living. This federal agency would not be able to fund the Senior Nutrition programs, Native American Nutrition and Supportive Services, Prevention of Elder Abuse and Neglect, the Long-Term Care Ombudsman program, and Protection and Advocacy for persons with developmental disabilities.

As reported, Social Security checks will be mailed, Medicare and Medicaid benefits will continue to be paid out, because these are considered mandatory programs, not discretionary ones. Benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly referred to as food Stamps, will continue in October, despite the federal shutdown.

Food Program Takes Budgetary Hit

Jenny Bertolette of the Meals on Wheels Association of America charges that the Federal Government shutdown “adds insult to injury as Senior Nutrition Programs are already dealing with devastating cuts due to sequestration, funding that has never kept up with inflation, increased food and transportation costs and increased need as significantly more seniors are aging and struggling with hunger than ever before.”

Bertolette says that should a shutdown persist for any considerable length of time, local Meals on Wheels programs that rely on government funding could experience a delay in reimbursements for meals and services delivered. Facing such funding uncertainty, programs could be forced to suspend meal services, create or expand waiting lists for meals, cut the number of meals or days they serve and reduce delivery days.

Jenny Bertolette of the Meals on Wheels Association of America charges that the Federal Government shutdown “adds insult to injury as Senior Nutrition Programs are already dealing with devastating cuts due to sequestration, funding that has never kept up with inflation, increased food and transportation costs and increased need as significantly more seniors are aging and struggling with hunger than ever before.”

Bertolette says that should a shutdown persist for any considerable length of time, local Meals on Wheels programs that rely on government funding could experience a delay in reimbursements for meals and services delivered. Facing such funding uncertainty, programs could be forced to suspend meal services, create or expand waiting lists for meals, cut the number of meals or days they serve and reduce delivery days.

Heather Amaral, Executive Director of Meals on Wheels of Rhode Island, agrees, noting that her Providence-based nonprofit program, has already lost $70,970 in 2013 federal funds due to last year’s sequestration cuts.

Amaral says that as a result of these cuts, to maintain meal delivery at the same numbers as last year (360,299 meals), she had to reduce menu items that were once offered. “Although the government shutdown doesn’t have an immediate impact on our program, I am concerned that it could lead to additional cuts,” she says, noting that should the shutdown continue until year end, the nonprofit agency will be forced to rely on donations and reserves to maintain service levels.

“We provide a safety check along with each home delivered meal and are often the only contact our client has that day, adds Amaral, who stresses that her program may be the only thing keeping a senior at home. “If we are forced to reduce the number of meals we serve, these people may be forced to live with a family member or enter a nursing home,” she warns.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) agency will be unable to fund additional payments to public housing authorities, many providing shelter to older Americans. HUD expects the 3,300 Public Housing Authorities it funds to have enough funding to get through the month of October. But, if the shutdown continues, some public housing authorities will not be able to maintain normal operation.

Also, Quarterly formula grants will not go out for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), the Social Services Block Grant (SSBG), or the Community Services Block Grant (CSBG).

Nutrition programs serving older adults face a double whammy with no FY14 appropriations and no reauthorization of the Farm Bill. The Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program expired along with the Farm Bill on Sept. 30. The Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) requires appropriations to continue operating.

According to well-known Aging Advocate Susan Sweet, this is a partial shutdown that hasn’t really hit aging programs yet. There are funding reductions in programs for older people, but that is due to the sequester, which will have another round of cuts in October, she says.

Sweet predicts that the negative effects of the shutdown itself will become worse with every passing day. For example, there is doubt that veterans benefits and social security will be paid in or after October absent a funding bill. Death benefits, including burial subsidies, have not been paid to the survivors of fallen armed forces members, she notes. Because of the public outcry regarding this outrage, a private charity has stepped up to pay the benefits with the promise of reimbursement when the government re-opens.

“Reduced to its true absurdity, the United States of America has lost the ability to rationally govern,” states Sweet. “The sequester cuts, previously characterized as “cuts for dummies”, have been implemented, we are in a war yet cannot bury our dead from that war, can’t even agree on a temporary fix, and are arguing whether the US should pay its bills or default,” she adds.

“It is perplexing, and we have heard many, many concerns from Rhode Island members, “ said AARP State Director Kathleen Connell. “Since the U.S. government has never failed to meet its financial obligations, we don’t know what payments it could make if the President and Congress fail to reach an agreement.

“One cannot help but wonder what effects this uncertainty has on people – many of whom struggle enough with health and financial issues,” Connell added. “We’re doing whatever we can to urge Congress and the President to act responsibly.”

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. His weekly commentaries can be found on his blog, herbweiss.wordpress.com. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.