In Support of Independence
Being a senior myself, I was very interested in seeing that my fellow senior citizens would have all the opportunities they could have,” said Bob Blazier.
Blazier was recalling the time, about six years ago, when he and Bill Dwyer co-chaired the political action committee that lobbied for the passage of what is now called the Senior Services Grant Program of McHenry County. Blazier, at the time, was president of the Crystal Lake Chamber of Commerce, and Dwyer, a successful local businessman, had earlier served as a member of the county board.
Illinois allows counties to levy a tax to provide services for senior citizens. In hopes of taking advantage of this opportunity, Bette Scheonholtz, executive director of Senior Services Associates, along with representatives of several other social service agencies, contacted John Labaj, deputy county administrator, and learned that a referendum had to be approved by county citizens before such a tax could be imposed.
“Under state statute, anything that goes to a referendum has to be approved by the McHenry County Board,” Labaj said. “While the board wasn’t interested in making any judgment relative to the referendum, it was very willing to let the voters decide. In that way, it went onto the April 2003 ballot as a referendum.”
Referendums are always tough. Indeed, a similar referendum was also on the ballot in Kane County in April of 2003. While it didn’t pass there, thanks to the good work of the political action committee in McHenry County, 60 percent voted in favor of the referendum.
“Clearly, the people of McHenry County thought it was a good thing to have a modest increase in property taxes to not just continue existing services to seniors but to improve upon those services,” said Labaj.
“When we put the committee together, we gathered volunteers from many of the organizations that would benefit from the funds generated by the referendum,” said Blazier.
Among those was Schoenholtz from Senior Services, which has been designated as the county’s case coordination unit by the Illinois Department of Aging.
“As a result of the Senior Services Grant Program funding, the county has been able to develop one of the most effective social service networks for older adults in the state of Illinois,” Schoenholtz said. “For us, funds from the referendum allowed us to open and staff our Crystal Lake office. We were also able to expand the hours of our senior companion program, which matches isolated seniors with a visit from a volunteer at least once a week. This is a great help to seniors because isolation can be so detrimental to a person’s quality of life.”
Lorraine Kopczynski, president and CEO of Pioneer Center for Human Services of McHenry County was also active on the committee. The Pioneer Center provides an array of programs throughout the county, including services for the developmentally disabled and people with mental health issues and traumatic brain injuries. It also operates a rape crisis center and the county’s PADS program.
“I believe Pioneer Center is fulfilling the original intent of the grant and am grateful that we’re able to provide these services,” Kopczynski said.
Carol Louise was also an active participant on the PAC and the executive director of Family Alliance. This agency’s mission is to help keep seniors at home with their families and avoid institutionalization for as long as possible. This provides them with a better quality of life and is also much less expensive to the community.
“The Senior Grant is our life blood,” said Louise. “Without funds from the referendum, we would not be here. Ninety percent of the people we serve are low to moderate income. The funds we receive help the seniors themselves as well as the caregivers who need to go to work and still make sure that their loved ones are being cared for in a good environment with professional services at an affordable price.”
There are other agencies that apply for and receive financial assistance from the Senior Services Grant Program. Faith in Action of McHenry County, for example, also helps seniors who live at home or with their families to maintain their independence, dignity and quality of life.
“We’ve been able to grow substantially as a result of support for the Senior Grant,” said Rhonda Anderson, the organization’s executive director. “For example, in three years, we have grown from 300 to 800 seniors who have registered with us for services. Compared to 60 or 70 just three years ago, we now serve about 200 of those seniors every month—always without charge. Without the Senior Grant, we’d still be a fledgling organization.”
“We decided early on to use the funds to not only support existing programs but to encourage new programs,” said Labaj. “To do that the County Public Health Committee organized a subcommittee, the Senior Services Grant Commission, which is in charge of recommending how the funds are to be distributed annually.”
“We get to distribute about $1,700,000 every year,” said Sandra Salgado, the chair of the commission. “The money, according to legislation, is to be used to keep seniors in their homes and for their transportation. This grant allows us to fund administrative and operations of a nonprofit. Too often, donors don’t get excited about contributing to administrative costs. It’s very difficult to find the kind of money they’re getting from us elsewhere. Of course, we encourage agencies to look for other funding.”
McHenry County residents should stand tall knowing they fund services that maintain or improve the quality of life of their senior population. But, maybe it’s really an investment in one’s own future, because everyone is going to age. One may not be facing the problems associated with aging today but will some day.
“By supporting this program, we’re helping our senior citizens carry on as productive members of the community,” Salgado said.