Island givers: Driving Mrs. Cronin

Volunteers for Vineyard Village at Home give Island seniors their wheels.

Mike Adell visits Eileen Cronin in her Havenside Apartments living room. Mr. Adell routinely drives Mrs. Cronin around on her errands, and the two have become friendly. — Photo by Michael Cummo

Mike Adell bounced out of his hybrid Honda last Tuesday morning and loped up the driveway to Havenside Apartments in Vineyard Haven to pick up the indomitable Eileen Cronin for her weekly food shopping trip to down-Island Cronig’s Market on State Road.

Mr. Adell is one of several dozen volunteers at Vineyard Village at Home (VVH) who make independent living possible for about 120 Island seniors. He is 77 now, fit and enthusiastic.

He has had a big life as a globe-trotting corporate executive and successful entrepreneur. He did not expect the personal payoff he’s received as a VVH volunteer.

“These people are phenomenal. I learn so much from them. Amazing life stories. This service is not a task for me, it’s an opportunity. I’ve made friendships through (VVH) volunteering,” he said. Ms. Cronin, ready to go, greets Mr. Adell and a reporter at her door.

Now in her early 80s, Ms. Cronin has had a lifetime of being ready. The Melrose native’s husband, a Monsanto engineer, died unexpectedly in his mid-forties, leaving his wife and four children. Ms. Cronin went to work, became the financial aid officer at Middlesex Community College and raised the kids. The Wall of Fame in her apartment is adorned with pictures of happy faces of these successful kids and their families, including Island businesswoman and community service volunteer Kate Desrosiers.

Ms. Cronin shows up as a happy, forward-looking woman with inbred Mom genes. On the way to the Honda she reminds a reporter to retie his shoe. “You don’t want to trip on the laces,” she said. On the four-minute drive to Cronig’s, Mr. Adell and Ms. Cronin catch up on life and kids. At Cronig’s, Ms. Cronin grabs a cart and heads inside while Mr. Adell and I repair to the Black Dog Cafe for coffee and a chat.

“We really need more volunteers,” Mr. Adell said. “This is a wonderful experience. There’s a bonding and friendship that occurs. I have six or eight people that I see on a regular basis.” He offered snapshots of the lives of several of his new friends, including several who survived the rigors of World War II in Europe.

Mr. Adell’s stories bring to mind Tom Brokaw’s book, The Greatest Generation, about the people born in the first half of the 20th Century who are now America’s senior citizens. He said he enjoys the social aspect of this generation of accomplished people, watching them change as they interact with the world they worked to create.

“You can just see them emerge in public and social settings, see their strength and humanity,” he said.

Back at Cronig’s, Ms. Cronin was at the checkout line, just in front of Marjory Potts, a West Tisbury senior who is shopping in advance of a memorial celebration last weekend for her husband, Robert Potts, a New York and West Tisbury journalist who died last month.

Hilarity ensues in the check-out line, even causing those in the queue to smile and chuckle. “I’ll tell you, the help Vineyard Village gave to Robert and me was enormous,” Ms. Potts said. Volunteers came and sat and talked, and later in his illness, they would read to him,” she said.

In the obituary for her print and radio journalist husband, Ms. Potts solicited volunteers to VVH service.

One reason VVH needs more help is that the organization has been ahead of the demographic curve. According to a report issued by the University of Massachusetts, Martha’s Vineyard has the oldest population in Massachusetts and the 2010 over-65 population of 16 per cent will be become 32 percent by 2030.

A nonprofit startup, founded by Polly Brown of Tisbury in 2007, VVH provides services that enable seniors to live independently. Island volunteers, many of them seniors themselves, provide rides, social interaction and access to the community for nearly 120 Island residents. VVH is modeled after the Beacon Hill Village in Boston, a model for 70 grassroots senior service organizations nationwide.

The point, Ms. Brown said, is to allow well-functioning seniors to stay in their homes and participate in their communities. “We provide referrals for home maintenance, health care workers, food preparation and the like. Mostly, we drive people to places they want to go — exercise class, discussion groups, medical and beauty appointments, friends’ homes, grocery shopping, etc.

“We rely on volunteers to drive our members. On a recent Tuesday, we needed 16 drivers! We do about 50 rides a week, every week,” Ms. Brown told The Times in a recent email.

“We began in January 2007. We used the Beacon Hill Village as a model and did some focus groups here, asking people what they wanted and needed,” Ms. Brown said in an interview this week.

“There has been rapid growth in the aging population and a lot of people live off long dirt roads,” she said. “Summer is not such a problem. Winter can be lonely; many people limit their night driving, but we like to get people out. We try to have parties, which makes it difficult to transport a large group back but we go to the high school culinary arts center, for example.”

The volunteer process is simple. “Tell us what you want to do,” Ms. Brown said. “We have a Google spreadsheet volunteers can access for signups. Volunteers choose what they want to do when they can help. There is no particular schedule.

”It’s quite remarkable to see how many volunteers and clients become friends. A young woman who volunteers with us visits a woman who has become a surrogate grandmother and participates in holiday and family celebrations.

“What we are really doing is giving back to Island residents who have given so much themselves to the community.”

Last Tuesday, as we left Ms. Cronin chuckling over our bumbling attempts to hang living room curtains, Mr. Adell said, with a laugh: “Know what? I’m going to keep doing this until they’re driving me around.”

Residents who wish to look into VVH service may call Ms. Brown at 508-693-3038, or email her at vineyardvillage@gmail.com.