Pandemic-era police safety checks take a sweet turn in Ashfield

  • Officer Gretchen Gerstner visits with Norman Nye at his home on Main Street in Ashfield. She knocked on Nye’s front door on Main Street about halfway through this day’s 54-mile circuit through town, distributing homemade peanut butter cookies and chocolate brownies. And saying hello, in her APD sweatshirt and her “POLICE” watch cap. Larry Parnass

  • Officer Gretchen Gerstner turns onto Smith Road in Ashfield about halfway through a recent 54-mile circuit through town for the Sweet Treat program run by the Ashfield Police Department. PHOTO BY LARRY PARNASS

  • Emily Streeter of Plainfield Road in Ashfield asks Officer Gretchen Gerstner about her recuperation from a recent car crash. PHOTO BY LARRY PARNASS

  • Officer Gretchen Gerstner looks at wooden heart pendants that Wayne Gardner makes at his home in Ashfield. She bought several for her grandchildren. PHOTO BY LARRY PARNASS

  • On her first-ever stop at Janine Mahnken’s home in Ashfield, Officer Gretchen Gerstner described the mission of the Sweet Treat program. PHOTO BY LARRY PARNESS

  • Just in case she’s not home for Officer Gretchen Gerstner’s arrival, Joanne Ostrowski keeps a bucket ready to receive the latest delivery of baked goods. PHOTO BY LARRY PARNASS

  • PHOTO BY LARRY PARNASS PHOTO BY LARRY PARNASS

For the Gazette
Published: 4/5/2022 4:23:51 PM
Modified: 4/5/2022 4:22:48 PM

ASHFIELD — On this Tuesday, Gretchen Gerstner finds Norman Nye in his favorite chair, his wood stove oozing a drowsy comfort. Nye is all questions, as Gerstner sets a waxed paper bag on a table, its top folded over some sweet cargo.

For starters, how’s her health? Ever since a crash late last year sidelined her for a spell, Gerstner has been getting that a lot during her weekly well-being checks on the town’s elders.

“Back in the saddle,” Gerstner said, when she let a reporter ride along as she stopped in to see 41 residents at more than 30 addresses. “Doing my Tuesday thing. And it feels good.”

She knocked on Nye’s front door on Main Street about halfway through this day’s 54-mile circuit through town, distributing homemade peanut butter cookies and chocolate brownies.

And saying hello, in her APD sweatshirt and her “POLICE” watch cap.

And smiling.

And keeping an eye out for signs one of Ashfield’s citizens needs a helping hand.

“You haven’t punched anybody out lately?” Nye asks, smiling and continuing a playful interrogation, turning the tables on who’s checking in on whom. “I always like to tease her. She’s a lovely lady and I keep up with her goings on.”

And vice versa. Gerstner asks if Nye had gone for a drive lately. He said he planned to scoot down Main Street to the Post Office and asked if they sold envelopes.

“I’m suffering from cabin fever,” Nye said. “In my obit, it will say that I never met people that I didn’t like.”

On Plainfield Road, Gerstner had already fielded questions about her accident, in which she broke an ankle and injured a shoulder when her car slid on black ice on Hawley Road and hit a tree. Other officers filled in for her for weeks while she recovered.

“If you’re not teased, you’re not loved,” she said.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, the department began calling Ashfield elders to make sure they were OK. Did they have masks and other supplies? Most said that family members and neighbors were helping out and they felt secure.

“Everyone was pretty much taken care of,” Gerstner said.

Chief Beth Bezio later thought of including little bags of snacks, turning the well-being checks into what’s now called the Sweet Treat program. It is funded through donations to the Ashfield Police Association and has been in operation since October 2020.

Gerstner, a part-time police officer who owns and operates Baked in Shelburne Falls, provides the treats.

On an earlier round, Gerstner had brought, along with her treats, Valentine’s Day cards created by students at Sanderson Academy.

At the first stop, on Cape Street (Route 112), Ed Landers eagerly accepted his bag of sweets, then asked Gerstner to take a look at his TV. With her SUV parked outside, she stood beside Landers in his living room, trying to get a remote to behave. Across the street and up a ways, Doc Bordeaux came to the door for a quick hello and a quick exchange of pleasantries — a routine repeated over four hours, as Gerstner wound her way west toward the Plainfield line, south to Williamsburg Road and then threaded her way through the town center and points north.

All along the way: Bags pulled from a big box on the rear seat. Visits at front doors or just inside. Warmth that went two ways, without exception.

On Norton Hill Road, Gerstner, who is 56, avoids snowed-over steps behind Marilyn Van Iderstine’s house and comes up through stairs inside the garage. Waiting at the top is Van Iderstine, who turned 90 last year but looks like she could sub in for Gerstner on the deliveries.

“Part of it is seeing this gal every week,” Van Iderstine, who has lived in town for 65 years, said of the program. “If I had fallen, she would be here. Besides all the goodies, it’s social contact.”

On Main Street, Sally Yates comes to her kitchen door. “It’s a godsend. It’s always great to see her smiling face,” she said of Gerstner.

At some addresses, if people are away, the little bags are left outside, quickening the pace for Gerstner. If she hasn’t seen someone for a while, she lingers and gets caught up.

“You’re worried about them, but they’re so resilient,” she said. “But they can go all week without talking to people.”

On a hillside north of Ashfield Lake, Ann Matthews answers a knock, then doubles back to turn down a TV tuned to a news channel.

“At my age, I need sweet treats like a hole in the head,” she said. “But I finally caved. I succumbed to it.” She said she likes the social contact.

On Ludwig Road, Gerstner finds Wayne Gardner outside, moving firewood. He comes to the window of her SUV and takes his bag of baked goods.

What does he think of Gerstner’s baking?

“I don’t know. I don’t get enough of it,” Gardner says, eyeing Gerstner for her reaction. “She’s an awesome girl. She looks out for the elderly and people in town and what not.”

Gerstner pulls some cash from her wallet and follows Gardner inside, where she buys two hand-carved heart pendants made of wood for young relatives. He gives her a small carved bear figurine just because.

Her route through town is plotted on a clipboard the chief prepares, with addresses in a certain order listed over four pages.

Figuring out the most efficient route took some thinking. “I stared at the addresses for so long,” Gerstner said. “I’d be like, ‘Why did I go this way?’”

On Creamery Road, Gerstner stops for the first time tosee Janine Mahnken. Mahnken’s son Tom invites her in for a chat.

Close to the northern end of her circuit, Gerstner motors up a driveway off Howe Road to see Pam and Jeff Zalenski, kin of the late Walt Zalenski, a pioneer of Ashfield policing. There’s a family feeling in the air.

“I just like to see Gretchen every week,” Pam Zalenski said, standing beside her husband by the front door. “We wouldn’t trade this program for anything. It’s just been a godsend.”

At her home on Smith Road, Joanne Ostrowski has been waiting for a tradesperson to come fix a heating problem. She seems to exude her own warmth when she comes to her door to accept the day’s cookie delivery in person — not in the bucket she leaves by the door, along with little messages for Gerstner, just for that purpose.

“I look forward to it so much,” she said of Gerstner’s deliveries.

On Hawley Road, Gerstner points to the tree that claimed her old car on the night she walked on a broken ankle to find help. Bark at its base remains scarred. It’s not a happy place for her.

Near the end of this day’s run, Gerstner heads back down Route 112 to see Mary Leue, the town’s oldest resident. It’s off the predetermined route, but Gerstner had delayed the stop so that Leue, 102, could take her midday nap.

That rest wasn’t quite over, but Leue’s caretaker wakes her, knowing she’d like to say hello.

“It’s a lucky break that I get to live here,” Leue said, sitting up a bit in her bed to greet visitors. “I’m overwhelmed by Ashfield’s kindness to people — old duffers like me. There’s no other place I know where they honor people my age.”


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