Welcome to week four of my 2,500-mile cycling tour that I’m calling Cycling for Good. This week I’m riding in honor of Debra Furtado and Senior Connections, which helps seniors live independent, healthy lives. You’ll learn Debra’s story and have a chance to make a difference, too.
A Board in Crisis
I met Debra more than 10 years ago when we were both serving on the board of directors of Senior Connections. Most of the board members, like Debra and I, were working with for-profit companies. Serving on a board was a way for us to give back to the community. During our time on the board, Senior Connections came to a major crossroads in exploring its mission and relationships, and began a search for a new CEO. Hard stuff for a board of a non-profit.
While we struggled and worked hard to find our way as a board, most of us never gave a thought to giving up our lucrative pay, stock options, great benefits, expense accounts, car allowances, comfortable, even plush offices, and prestigious positions to lead Senior Connections through this transition.
But one person did – Debra Furtado.
Coming Full Circle
When Debra was a child, her mother volunteered for Senior Connections, delivering meals to seniors in their community. And her mom recruited members of their church to join in, and the Ladies Circle was soon delivering meals all over the city of Decatur, a suburb of Atlanta. One of the seniors Debra and her mom delivered meals to, Francis, became like a member of their family. Francis attended their holiday gatherings for dinner, Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter as she did not have family living near her. (Little did they know when they began visiting Francis that she held a family right to tickets to the Masters golf tournament, that she would gladly share with her new family!)
Debra learned at an early age about a strong sense of community and how much difference little acts can make in the lives of members of a community. Debra also worked at a company whose leaders valued connections to the community.
So, for Debra, the path was obvious – give up her corporate job and do something important – help make sure Senior Connections would remain a strong source of good for seniors in the Atlanta area.
Gone were the days of virtually unlimited resources and big bonus checks. Debra jumped in and never looked back.
Making a Difference in the Lives of Seniors
I asked Debra what she likes most about working at Senior Connections.
First, Debra loves seeing the impact that Senior Connections has on the lives of seniors who receive meals or whose homes are improved to make them more livable and accessible or who spend time in senior centers each day.
Eli is a neighbor of Debra’s. After a phone call from a police officer asking about a wheelchair ramp for Eli, Debra visited him. She learned that he had no heat – his gas had been turned off as he was trying to cut his expenses. Working with community friends and companies, Debra was able to restore his gas, heat and water heater. Fifteen years without hot water! Eli now has a new wheelchair ramp thanks to other corporate supporters including AutoTrader.com. Debra knows there are many more like Eli in our communities who just need someone to reach out and offer a helping hand.
Making a Difference in the Lives of Volunteers
Debra also loves the sense of community that comes from helping seniors in her own backyard. This sense of community is shared by the more than 1,000 volunteers who help Senior Connections every year. These volunteers are a diverse group of giving individuals that are caring and involved and always go the extra mile when helping seniors.
This is especially true of Meals On Wheels volunteers like Martha Zimmer, who truly connects with the seniors on her delivery route. Martha, a volunteer with Senior Connections since 1997, religiously delivers meals every Tuesday.
She is a friend to all of “her seniors,” but had a soft spot for Mr. M., who was wheelchair bound. When he didn’t answer the door one day, she persevered, noticing more mail than usual and no sounds in the house. She was concerned enough with the situation to sound the alarm. EMS workers found Mr. M. on the floor, where he’d fallen on Sunday. Without food or water for several days, Martha’s intervention saved Mr. M.’s life. Martha loves being a part of the lives of seniors she comes to know through her service as a volunteer.
Your Help Is Needed
Debra’s job is not an easy one. Her biggest challenge is the lack of resources – both internal resources and those used directly to help seniors. In her position, Debra sees how vast the problem is. Eighteen percent of seniors in Georgia live below the poverty level. For every senior receiving home improvements or home-delivered meals, there are dozens more who need help.
And Debra sees first hand the plight of many seniors who live alone with little in the way of a network of support from family and friends. Often, their only social contact is with a volunteer delivering meals, who becomes a friend and a support.
I am dedicating my ride this week to Debra Furtado, who inspires us to remember the value of community and to look after one another, especially those, like seniors, who have given so much and now rely on us. Support me in this effort by donating to Senior Connections. Remember that your gifts made during my ride will be matched dollar for dollar up to $6,000!
Senior Connections is dedicated to serving seniors and providing them with dignity, care and choice and the ability to “age in place.” Among other things, Senior Connections prepares and delivers 2,500 meals daily to seniors in the Atlanta community, provides almost 60,000 hours annually of in-home care, provides repairs for more than 200 homes and operates DeKalb County senior centers.