A woman who cherishes making connections and who wants to see seniors stay independent and connected with their communities was recognized Friday for her incredible efforts over the past decade of work she has done at the Pilgrim Senior Center in Warwick.
The Senior Agenda Coalition of Rhode Island honored Meg Underwood at their 5th annual award ceremony this past Friday, May 10, at the Providence Marriot located on 1 Orms Street.
Underwood has dedicated her entire career working for Rhode Island citizens, first from substituting for elementary schools in East Greenwich and Warwick for eight years, to reporting for the Warwick Beacon, to writing grants for the City of Warwick, and finally to providing essential programs to the elderly.
Underwood says the relationships she has formed with so many of her members is the most satisfying part of her work.
“It’s the connections you make,” she said. “You begin as someone to guide them or to help them, and in very short order you are connected quite deeply.”
Underwood attests that there are “extreme ups and downs” when forming such meaningful connections with her senior members. She has the ups of getting to know them on a personal level and caring for them deeply, and at the same time she has to deal with the fact that these are the same people who are more prone to illness and disease and that she has to see them go through these terrible life events.
Underwood received the ‘Whose Work Mattered for Seniors’ award, for her exhaustive efforts in organizing the members of Pilgrim’s Senior center to lobby their state representatives for better representation and benefits for seniors.
Bill Flynn, Executive Director of the senior agenda coalition of Rhode Island, said, “Meg has this cold anger about her. She might appear shy to people who don’t know her but under that calm is a passion to advocate. A passion saying ‘we have to do something about this, now.’”
Underwood’s community organizing has helped put necessary pressure on the state to consider the needs of Rhode Island seniors and enact legislation that improves their quality of life. “Meg really identifies and encourages her members to speak out about their needs,” said Flynn, which he said is so important in keeping seniors relevant and prevents them from being pushed aside by legislation that hinders their progress.
Flynn said that Underwood is a testament to the mission of senior centers, which strive to provide essential programs keeping older citizens relevant and functional in society. Underwood and her fellow directors fight at the legislature to get the state to provide programs, such as reduced bus fare for seniors.
“She holds us accountable and doesn’t allow us to back down” he said.
When the state repealed the reduced bus fare legislation, taking away low-income and disabled persons abilities to get around without financial deterrent, Underwood was out at meetings and forums with her members pressuring Rhode Island’s representatives to reinstate the essential piece of legislation.
About 200 seniors visit Pilgrim’s center on a daily basis. There are about 6,000 seniors served per year at Pilgrim. Underwood emphasizes that the role of senior centers is to provide much needed socialization. Seniors do not want to be placed in homes. They want to live independently and interact in the community as any other person does. The senior center, Meg stresses, serves exactly this role. In this goal of socialization, Underwood is excited about all the different programs they are able to offer seniors.
“Exercise programs are very important. We have dancing classes. We have sing-along music classes,” all of which get these people involved and keeps them in touch, said Underwood.
“The meal program is critical,” she added. “It is a federal program. The requested donation is three dollars for a meal, but you are never asked. There’s a box there and you put money in, or you don’t. And for some folks, that may be there only good meal of the day.”
It is these types of programs that Underwood feels are so important for seniors trying to get by and keep up with life.
Underwood also made sure to mention the invaluable help of Pilgrim’s volunteers, who have saved seniors nearly $300,000 in healthcare in just the last two years.
“When there is someone who is on a fixed income and learns that they don’t have to be paying what they’ve been paying, we’ve had people in tears, just so grateful,” said Underwood.
Underwood has spent years advocating for Rhode Island Senior citizens and her advocates say that receiving this award does not do her contribution justice. Nevertheless, the award doesn’t matter to her, because what she really wants is to keep fighting to keep seniors in touch.
In addition to Underwood, the coalition honored Mary Lou Moran, who is currently Executive Director of the Leon Mathieu Senior Center in Pawtucket; acting Rhode Island state Senator Gayle Goldin; former member of the Rhode Island House of Representatives Elaine Coderre; and Karen Mensel, for their advocacy on behalf of Rhode Island senior citizens.