Clark, Ella

Interviewer: Jean McMillen
Place of Interview: Sharon Town Hall
Date of Interview:
File No: 37 Cycle: 3
Summary: Sharon Town Municipal Agent and Social Worker, founder of Chore Service

Interview Audio

Interview Transcript

Ella Clark Interview

This is file #37, cycle 3. Today’s date is June 18, 2018. This is Jean McMillen. I am interviewing Ella Clark at the Sharon Town Hall. She is the Municipal Agent for Sharon and she is going to talk about the beginnings of Chore Service and things that are related to that and anything else she wants to talk about. But first we will start with…

JM: What is your name?

EC:My name is Ella Clark.

JM:How did you come to this area?

EC:The first time in this area was to see the gravestones in the cemetery. The second time was when we bought land in Amenia and built a house there. The third time was when we lived there and my son was born in Sharon Hospital.

JM:When was your son born?

EC:I don’t know 1969, around there? Then we all left for a while and went to the West Coast and when I came back I tried various other places. I ended up in Sharon where the town Hall needed a Municipal Agent. (See Tap # 125A, Patricia Walsh, #138A, Mike Beck Salisbury Municipal Agents) Then they needed a Social Service Agent because in 1998 there was a downturn in the economy and a lot of people in various towns needed help. The first selectman of these towns, since they did not have a Social Service Agent already as they do in Salisbury, like Salisbury Family Services, that wonderful organization (See file #97, Patrice McGrath, Salisbury Family Services). A lot of towns hired people to help take care of “indigent individuals”. I came to the Town Hall under those auspices as Municipal Agent and Social Services Agent.

JM:Do you have a degree in Social Services?

EC:I do not.

JM:But you are a caring person and that is what counts. How did the idea for the Chore Service begin?

EC:In 1992 the State Department of Social Services was not cutting back on social services, but was starting to charge people for services at home. Two families in Sharon talked to me about that. One of them was a couple. She was legally blind: he had a heart condition. They were in their late 80s and living on a combined income of approximately $14,500 living at home. Their Department of Social Service person was then going to encumbering their house if they used social services. A lot of people do not want to have a lien on their house because it is the only asset they can give to their children. Russell Feingold, bless his soul, called this kind of encumbering a death tax on the poor. It was Mr. Ned and Mrs. Julia Drum who came to me with this problem as well as Della Finn, a wonderful feisty lady. Both of they were of very modest means and only living on Social Security. Della Finn was a nurse at the


Sharon Hospital. I cast about and I talked with the people at the Western Connecticut Area Agency on Ageing which is a Federal Agency. They are in every state. Area agencies are mean to help take care of, in one way or another, to provide information for people 60 and over. They provide grants, information and support. I talked with Chris Fishbine there who is, I believe still the head of it. She suggested a program called “a chore service”. I had never heard of that before, but she said it was something that will help me at home. You can apply for a grant. People can contribute to it. Technically there is no charge; they can contribute what they can afford. It is on a sliding scale. I started to make out an application for this program, but these people, these 3 people whom I was very concerned about, needed help right away. After I had written out and copied the 14 copies of the many page application for the Western Connecticut Area Agency on Ageing, I meanwhile applied to the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation (See tape #157A, Alice Yoakum) for a grant so that I could start. I got 2 thousand dollars from the BTCF for this enterprise. It was great. So that is how we started out with one town and three people.

JM:This is where little beginning and then it just grows. What is the official name?

EC:It is the Northwest Corner Chore Service. That is what it is.

JM:How is your Chore Service different from something in an urban area?

EC:Not only in an urban area but a few other places. In the first place I thought, since people would have to drive to their client, I wanted to provide mileage. So we provide mileage for people. There were in the early days not restrictions on the number of miles that a person could drive. Eventually some people were getting even more money in mileage that in wages. We had to scale back, not by much. We limited it to 24 miles per visit. That is one way. The other way that it was different was that we provided help with anything around the house and to some extent outside the house because people in rural areas consider their lawn, their front yard to be a part of their house. It is an extension of their dwelling and of themselves. We wanted people to be able to use chore workers to help with things outside. We also for a while had a program called” Gardening Angels” which was a program to help people with gardens. The “Garden Angels” was started in the South to help with vegetable gardens. They would help clients with but not putting in a full scale garden, but with a small vegetable garden or tending the strip of perennials or annuals that they had outside their houses. They also did snow shoveling, and mowing to some extent. Those were outdoor things that a person in an urban region would not need and were considered by the program, the Chore Service in general, to be frills and unnecessary.

JM:They are not frills, not here. Did you pay them the minimum wage?

EC:No we did better than that and we tried to be competitive or do better than local agencies that were providing a similar kind of help.

JM:Were you restricted to just one income level?


EC:No, oh no that was the big thing! We wanted to be sure that everybody knew about it and anybody 60 or over < and as well as I understood it, anybody disabled. In any case anybody pf any income could use it because I didn’t want it to become a source of stigma where a person who was using the chore service would be automatically labeled as “poor”. We had a nice mix of people of all incomes. It meant that for at least the most generous of our better-off clients would have a better contribution. That way we could try to balance the people who couldn’t afford very much.

JM:That is wise. The original town was Sharon. Were there any other towns involved in the beginning?

EC:In the very beginning a woman in Cornwall learned about it; she was a widowed artist Helen Gazanyare. She needed a lot of help. She could not drive anymore; she needed housekeeping and errands. We also added Canaan so those 3 were in the beginning of the Chore Service. We did ask the other towns, but they did not respond immediately. Salisbury did respond but said that did not need it,

JM:How about Falls Village?

EC:Yeah, they eventually did join. When I left in whenever it was. There were 6 or 7 towns: they included but they did not have Norfolk then, but they are Region #1, not Warren and now Norfolk. For a while we had more than those towns. It expanded into Barkhamsted, Colebrook, Litchfield, Goshen, and all that area. I think there might have been 17 towns, but Chore Services really depend on an intimate knowledge of both the workers and the clients and the territory as well and its needs. After a few years we scaled back, but we encouraged the creation of Chore Services in those territories. There is now a Chore Service in Litchfield, which serves the towns around Litchfield. There is also a Chore Service in Winsted that serves the towns around them.

JM:You started a trend.

EC:There was a need. Once the injection of the possibility was there, people realized the benefits.

JM:It is marvelous. Having used it, it is really marvelous.

EC:Good I am glad you liked it.

JM:Oh absolutely I used it with my husband and then when I become ill and was house-bound for three months, I used it myself and found it extremely helpful.

EC:That is always good to hear. Thank you.

JM:There are benefits to chore Service besides helping older people. What benefits do the workers receive?

EC:It was one of the things that I did not expect. I thought that this was going to be a real benefit for older people, but it turned out that not only the benefits of having a very flexible job, particularly


mothers with kids and tight schedules could go when they could manage to get the same schedule that the client needed, but also there was an emotional bond in many cases. They became friends. I think that was beneficial to both the workers and the clients.

JM:Particularly if you are by yourself. To have someone to come in that is warm and friendly and interested. It does make a tremendous difference.

EC: Someone who listens and helps you out.

JM:They get the flexible hours, they get a pay over minimum wage and they get mileage so it is a win-win situation.

EC:I believe so. The main point and this becomes increasingly needed I think is to try to keep people at home where they want to be. If it is appropriate they can stay. If it is better for them to have 24 hour care, that is different, but more people want to stay home with their dog, and the view, and the smells they are used to and their neighbors. That was really key.

JM:You are happier in familiar surroundings. How do you get workers?

EC:Originally we advertised. It was very important to screen well, interview properly and to be able to reassure the client that these people had had a background check, the criminal check. Now they do a drug testing. I didn’t do that before. They do now and all the appropriate things. In the beginning the workers were independent contractors and we had to go to the Department of Labor to prove that they were independent contractors. Now the workers for the chore Service are employees. That was good for some workers and not so good for others. It was a necessary thing, and it means that employees follow all the different rules that any employee in Connecticut has to follow.

JM:What was the interview process like?

EC:Usually I was the one who interviewed, although people in other towns Social Service people would do interviews as well, but I thought that was appropriate because they knew their people in their town. A person could look good in an interview, but you know that there were certain missteps that might not be good for that person to be in a house of an older woman or an older man. In my case an interview would ask first of all what their ideal job would be. I think it was important to know what their main concerns were for a job. Some people would answer that saying, “I really love to clean.” I was pretty sure that wasn’t the actual response; it was not the response I was looking for. But it gave an idea about who the person was. I might ask about previous jobs, anything they wanted to tell me about themselves, experiences. I was not particularly interested in education; they could tell me if they wanted. There are various questions that one does not ask in an interview, so I did not ask those questions. It was usually a half an hour and a friendly encounter. It may have been somebody I had seen around town and wanted to get to know better. I wanted to see if they might fit. The interview does give you an idea of who they might be good to work for. You remember, for example, that somebody is really interested in birds and sponsors the Audubon so you think of a woman who was equally


interested in ornithology and the outdoors. You put them together. Or somebody who is very good at the computer and you know that Mrs. Brown really wants some help with her computer so you put them together. That is the sort of thing you try to ferret it out in an interview because the range of needs is huge. I wanted to see if they wanted to cook a little. ”Oh no I’d never cook.” This you would want to find out the various talents that everybody has that the worker could offer.

JM:Were there any documents that you checked?

EC:Oh yeah police check, background check, and driver’s license.

JM:Did you check any wage forms/

ECLThey do now but not when I was doing it.

JM:Did you check references?

EC:Yes, of course.

JM:How many references did you require?

EC:Three, people are funny about references. They will sometimes assume that you are not going to check them. There was one person who applied from Salisbury. He gave as a reference Dick Taber who was the minister of the Congregational Church. (See file #64 Rev. Dick Taber) I called Dick Taber and he said, “Oh yeah, he is the one who stole from the till.” So this man obviously assumed that I wasn’t going to check up. I always talked to them. Sometimes they are unable to policy reasons to give you a reference, so you ask for another reference.

JM:How do you get clients?

EC:Well at first it’s was not all that easy because it is very difficult for many people who have never had somebody do for them to ask a stranger into their house.

JM:I know. It is very hard to ask for help.

EC: Among other things not only the invasion of a stranger, but also the perceived lack of independence. I can do that myself! I have always done it myself. This new girl (it always was a girl even if it was a 45 year woman.) I don’t know if she will be able to do my wash the way I want it.

JM:My “girl” could not make a bed with hospital corners.

EC:That is the type of thing I am talking about. The client would train the ”girl” to do it right, just the way you wanted it. They would try. They were adaptive. The other thing was it would be a worry that the stranger might steal from them.

JM:That happened with my father in Massachusetts.


EC:That is always a difficult thing because sometimes older people imagine that, but if that did happen you want to be really careful to make sure. Yes, there have been documented incidents of thief. That is just something that comes with the territory.

JM:You got your funding from the Western Connecticut Area Agency on Ageing. That is federal isn’t it?

EC:That is federal. It is usually a diminishing grant so you are meant to be trying to become self-sufficient which is very difficult to do because with the Chore Service you never get enough contributions to cover the cost. You apply for other grants as well and you ask for contributions from the town. I never asked for that much. I think they ask for more now.

JM:You did ask the town?

EC:Yeah but not as aggressively at first because we were pretty tiny.

JM:You also mentioned the BTCF.

EC:That was 2 thousand dollars and that was great because we could start right off right away. The problem with the area agency on ageing is that like many huge bureaucracies, they don’t pay you until you have documented everything that you have done. We had a real cash flow problem. The Town of Sharon was more than generous in covering our costs by guaranteeing payment and then assuming, rightly, that we would reimburse them. It could not have happened without the Town of Sharon behind it. It also meant that we didn’t have to pay rent for an office. (The Chore Service was located in the Sharon Town Hall.) We paid a certain amount for phone and electricity, but not rent.

JM:I think you said that because you were using a federal agency you had to form a board of directors?

EC:No we would not have had to do that. That came because at first we were under the umbrella of the BTCF under their charitable organization status. As Chore Service grew we decided that it would be best to be our own 501(c3) Non-profit organization. When we applied for status as a 501(c3), one of the things we had to do is have a board.

JM:Do you remember when the board was formed?

EC:Perhaps 1995 something like that. It was a wonderful board, most supporting. We had a lawyer, and a doctor and a social worker, and a couple of community members. I can’t remember there might have been 7 and they were most helpful always.

JM:Were they all from Sharon?

EC:No Carl Borneman was from Falls Village, Geoff Drury was from Canaan, and Phyllis Knots was from Cornwall. Patrice McGrath was from Salisbury (See file #97, Patrice McGrath) I am sure I am forgetting people here. I think that Claudia Warner was briefly on there: she was from Sharon. Those were the beginning ones that I can think of.

JM:Did you have a staff to monitor this?7.

EC:No. It was just me. When it got bigger, I hired people to work in the office, particularly because they needed to manage payments. We needed to use QuickBooks and various other computer programs that I was not particularly good at. We also had a very good bookkeeper Deborah Anderson, who was very good and flexible. Everybody had to be pretty flexible and also had to be extremely sensitive to time constraints. These were people who worked for us that needed that money right then. Many would come to this office and pick up their pay check because they needed to have it of Friday. Not all of them, but many.

JM:How was the work supervised?

EC:We had very good supervision in the form of the clients. They would always come to me and tell me if something was not done right. I think that there being more of that supervision now with the current chore Service, but I didn’t go and watch somebody clean. I would call the client to see how things were going, but I wasn’t about to be looking over somebody’s shoulder.

JM:When did you retire?

EC:I lasted 20 years so that would be 2012. Does that sound right? Because the board decided that the program had gotten too big for it to be still run by somebody who was the social services agent as well as the Chore Service Co-coordinator. I didn’t feel that; I felt fine. They found a Director (Heather Dineen from Cornwall Ed.) I moved on from here.

JM:You maintained your Municipal Agent and Social Services Agent position.

EC:I have always been the Municipal Agent and Social Service person in Sharon. That has never changed.

JM:You enjoy what you do.

EC:I do. I love what I do.

JM:That is the most important thing. Is there anything about you Chore Service that I have not asked you that you want to tell me?

EC:One of the things that I was really hoping was that in neighboring New York State somebody might have picked it up as a possible program. They have a program that doesn’t cover many people and the Northeast Community Center did make stabs at applying for a chore service grant, but it never came to anything. I am sorry about that. I tried to promote it, obviously not very well. New York State is run on a county basis, not a town basis so it’s much more difficult politically to address, even if a particular town felt they needed something like that. You would have to go to Poughkeepsie to get all the information about funding and documenting. All that fun stuff.

JM:That is a shame.8.

EC:It could be done if that area agency was behind it, but it seems they have other preoccupations. That is their call.

JM:Do you miss not being involved with Chore Service?

EC:Yeah, I do particularly in the beginning. I was working with friends.

JM:You would become friends as you worked very closely with matching worker and client. You do get to know them well. It was like leaving school. I had no friends because everybody was too busy.

Thank you very much

EC:Thank you very much. It has been a pleasure to talk to you.