WILLIAMSTOWN -- Invaluable. Caring. Wonderful. These are words clients of the Williamstown Council on Aging use to describe van driver Kathy Vareschi.
Vareschi was honored with the Town Employee of the Year Award at the Williamstown Annual Town Meeting held on May 21 in the Mount Greylock High School gym.
"I was so surprised. It was totally a fog," Vareschi, a resident of North Adams, said in an interview with The Advocate. "I was standing in the doorway of the gym when they made the announcement. I remember thinking ‘why are they talking about my relationship with my clients. Are they trying to get me more business?’ They did a really good job of keeping the award a secret from me. Even my husband didn’t know about it."
Because a well-intentioned plot proved successful, the honoree from North Adams was present at the Town Meeting.
Vareschi’s works from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., but on the evening of May 21 she drove a number of senior citizens from their homes to MGRHS, intending to return for them later. But after safely delivering her charges, she heard a familiar voice beckoning her.
"Brian [O’Grady, director of the WCOA,] called out, ‘Kathy, come on in, we need you to count votes,’" Vareschi recalled.
Thus the unsuspecting van driver stayed at the meeting to help out, as O’Grady, who has worked with her for the past 14 years, had thought she would.
"I have been involved in one elder care program or another for the last 30 years or so, and Kathy is certainly in the category of ‘best with whom I have been associated with along this road,’" O’Grady said. "She really cares about the people she works with. She has that quality which allows her to put others needs before her own. She knows the people she works for, she is in their lives, and she knows their diets, their doctors, medicines, pet name, children and hairdresser. People depend on her and she comes through."
Back when Vareschi resided in Rochester, N.Y., she worked as a certified nursing assistant in a nursing home. Now, she finds it "satisfying to help people stay in their homes."
The WCOA’s priorities for van use are life support services, such as taking clients on shopping trips for groceries and transporting them to medical appointments. Vareschi also drives the town’s older folk to and from the Harper Center, where they enjoy each other company while savoring a hot lunch. Other activities include art classes, exercise, health clinics, bingo, bridge and Wii bowling.
"We go to Walmart about twice a month, and in the holiday season we go to the Lanesboro Mall and/or Holyoke Mall. The van is full then," said Vareschi. "[Town Manager] Peter Fohlin says we can’t charge a penny because some oldsters might not be able to afford to go. But we do accept donations.
For some of the people on the van, it is their only opportunity to see stores resplendent in holiday decorations.
There are some requests Vareschi is unable to grant. "I can’t take people to Pittsfield or Boston. There would be no one to get other clients where they need to go," said the van driver.
Over the years, the need for van service has increased from 400 rides a month to 800 rides a month, Vareschi said. "Many a time I’ve been stuck in driveways and roads that haven’t been plowed and I’ve shoveled walks so people could get from their homes to the van."
It is not only clients, but their families as well that benefit from Vareschi’s services. "I wouldn’t have been able to work and keep my Mom home, if not for Kathy," said Kelly Phillips." She drove my Mom to the (adult) day care center in North Adams. She would help my mother get into and out of the van, and when she brought Mom back home, she took her into the house, made sure she put her feet up, and then turned on the TV for Mom."
Vareschi extended kindness to Phillips and her mother even when she was "off from work." "When I needed to go someplace and couldn’t take Mom along, Kathy would come to the house and see that Mom was dressed," said Phillips. Vareschi was a constant in the two women’s lives for a decade then in April of 2013, Philips’s mother died.
"Kathy goes above and beyond her duty, " said Dr. Anne Skinner, president of the Williamstown League of Women Voters, who presented Vareschi with a marble paperweight bearing the Williamstown emblem, and an Employee of the Year certificate at the Town Meeting.
The League of Women Voters established the award in 2011 to show appreciation for town employees who have been outstanding, either in a single act or over years of service. Everyone on the town payroll is eligible, including the town manager, fire fighters, snowplow drivers, police officers, librarians and custodians.
Mary Lou Galusha, widow of recently deceased Daniel Galusha, is among the people who know from personal experience that Vareschi is deserving of the award. The widow’s husband had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, and she remembers Vareschi taking him to the adult day care center in North Adams. "Kathy treated him wonderfully," she said. "And later when he was in Williamstown Commons, Kathy would take me to see him every day. I have arthritis and she would help me get into the van."
Occasionally, Vareschi would drive Galusha from Williamstown Commons to the family farm where he was raised. "He enjoyed seeing his son, grandson and great-grandson cutting corn, haying or doing other stuff on the farm," said the 2013 Employee of the Year.
Carolyn Whitney is a senior citizen Vareschi drives to the Harper Center several times a week. "We all love Kathy," said Whitney. "She knows the limitations of everyone and does many kindnesses for people."
When asked what is on her wish list, Vareschi did not say a long vacation from driving or a mild winter, as one might expect. She wants the WCOA to have a second van. "Some days," she said, "I’m so busy I think I’m going to meet myself on the corner."