Columnists Marlene Marrocco and Patte Shaughnessy: Why seniors support Heather Cahillane

  • Chef Francesco Dell’Olio, left, checks a customer's lunch order with Northampton Senior Center Assistant Director and Program Coordinator Heather Cahillane and Joe Lafond, right, of the Hampshire County sheriff's office, during the grand re-opening of Mary's Bistro on Oct. 3, 2017. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Monday, April 16, 2018

The recent search for a new director for the Northampton Senior Center has impacted a large contingency of our community (“Senior Center shakeup,” April 14-15).

When Patte Shaughnessy left a few years ago, the search for her replacement took several months. During that time, Heather Cahillane, who was assistant director, was asked by the mayor to fulfill the duties of the director. Although she was a finalist for the position of permanent director, she fulfilled the request and performed both jobs. That search resulted in hiring someone other than Cahillane.

That person lasted 1½ years and left before a replacement could be hired. During the second search for a director, Cahillane again was asked to take on the director’s job even though she was again a finalist for that same position.

As was the case in the previous search, the staff, volunteers, members of the Council of Aging (COA) board and members of the Northampton senior community loudly voiced their support to the mayor for Cahillane as their choice for the new director.

Two members of the COA board were selected by the mayor to serve on the search committee. The remaining members of the COA board were never polled for their consensus and thus those two members’ opinions did not represent that of the COA board.

When it was announced that the new hire not only was from outside the Northampton Senior Center community but also outside of the city of Northampton, the community came together in protest. According to the job description posted by the city, Cahillane is more than qualified for the position.

We do not disparage the chosen candidate — this is not about her. This is about choosing the right candidate for the needs of our community and the right candidate for the job.

The senior center is not a “corporation,” it’s not just a building, it’s a community. It takes someone with a high level of empathy, understanding and compassion — someone who knows the Northampton senior community.

Cahillane has shown these qualities in so many ways. She knows the members by first names. She knows their stories and is aware if a regular doesn’t show up for a few days. She has regularly received phone calls from families of members who have passed away to inform her, because the senior center was their second home.

When any type of issue comes up from a plumbing problem to a staff concern to an event decision, the common phrase around the center is, “let’s ask Heather.” She is loved and appreciated by everyone involved with the center.

We take this opportunity to explain what our mayor thinks is not qualified. Cahillane, the assistant director, has a bachelor of science degree in psychology from Smith College where she was on the dean’s list for three years. She has over 10 years of human services experience, including five years with the Northampton Senior Center in various positions.

During those five years, she developed a multitude of new programs and initiatives including exercise classes; “author of the month”; financial education; armchair travel lecture series; art, music and cooking classes; language and poetry classes; collaborations programs with area colleges; and the highly successful Bistro (Tuesdays and Thursdays lunch).

She has successfully written grants for Highland Valley Elder Services and the United Way to support the Elder Nutrition Program. As program coordinator, she served the mayor as interim assistant director when needed a few years ago. As assistant director, she served the mayor as the interim media and marketing coordinator when needed a few years ago. As assistant director, she served the mayor as the interim director when Shaughnessy left. Cahillane did this while performing her regular position.

Now, once again she is being asked to serve, by the mayor, as director, until the chosen director starts at the end of April.

Is this really someone not qualified to be the director of Northampton’s Senior Center?

We are not sure if anything can be done about this, but feel it’s important for the public to understand how strongly our community feels about this process and its outcome.

We hope that if a new search for another new director is needed in the next few years, the mayor will finally realize what his decision cost Northampton’s senior community.

Marlene Marrocco was a member of the Northampton Council on Aging until she resigned Thursday. Patte Shaughnessy is a retired director of Northampton Senior Services. The column also was signed by Barbara Fungaroli, Dot Beebe, Kay Kowalski, Susan Maguire, Barbara Kaczenski, John Kaczenski, Joan Banas, Micaela Montorfano, Harry Petrucci, Mary Vazquez, Melissa Lampron, Elaine Williams, Anne Smith and Julie Zuckman, all members of the Northampton Senior Center.