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Growing with grace and smarts: How Athens Community Council on Aging listens to staff, manages costs, and supports seniors

Operating 14 distinct programs that serve the unique needs of aging populations in northeast Georgia, the Athens Community Council on Aging has many irons in the fire. Leadership has found that robust internal communications and an open door policy keeps everyone on the same page, brings the best ideas forward, and strengthens the staff to advance ACCA’s mission.

NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon (right) and Athens Mayor Nancy Denson (center) work alongside student volunteers at the Athens Community Council on Aging.

Each day, roughly 10,000 Americans turn 65. Aging brings new challenges that impact quality of life for seniors, especially regarding poverty, hunger, and chronic disease. When seniors in northeast Georgia need help, they turn to the Athens Community Council on Aging (ACCA), supporting wellness through engagement, advocacy, and education since 1967. The organization, a GCN member since 2003, has grown its impact by harnessing staff input and the community’s abundant volunteer talent, while guaranteeing its dependability into the future with effective new financial stewardship policies.

Local insight helps newcomers

Continually recognized as a top retirement destination in Forbes and other magazines, the Classic City is welcoming more retirees every year from across the country. ACCA Executive Director Jennie Deese said retirees are attracted not just to quality medical facilities and the local arts community, but the “town and gown” offerings of the University of Georgia’s flagship campus. “Lifelong learning is a draw,” said Deese. “Practically everything people want to do is within an hour of Athens.” 

For these newcomers, and other aging Athenians, ACCA fills an important role: keeping tabs on local long-term care facilities, assisted living homes, and nursing homes, and providing side-by-side comparisons of private Medicare provider benefits to help families and individuals find the best fit. “People often don’t know where to begin,” said Deese. “Typically, families don’t talk about [age-related] topics until there’s a crisis.”

ACCA also addresses food insecurity, developing creative interventions with a network of community partners to fight hunger and improve nutrition. Because downtown Athens has no grocery store, for example, ACCA got a mobile food pantry rolling regularly through town. Organized with the Food Bank of Northeast Georgia, it delivers 10,000 pounds of food to 400 Athens residents every month.  

Fourteen programs, one page

In all, ACCA delivers 14 programs addressing the needs of an aging population, including a community garden, specialized transportation, service opportunities for seniors, and the Center for Active Living (CAL), a multi-purpose space dedicated to social, educational, and wellness-related classes and activities.

Managing all the moving parts, said Deese, takes active and deliberate communication.

“We’re going in 14 directions simultaneously, but we all overlap regarding the mission of the agency, what we’re about, and in coming together to share information.”

Deese and her team make time for monthly check-in meetings, where managers update each other, and where one program is responsible for an educational activity that builds camaraderie across departments. (Some recent activities have included a Family Feud-style game, a hula hoop contest, and an ice cream social.)

“We’re going in 14 directions simultaneously,” said Deese, “but we all overlap regarding the mission of the agency, what we’re about, and in coming together to share information.” Deese said she knows her team’s internal communications is working effectively when she can walk down the hallway at the CAL, peek in a classroom doorway and know what is going on.

Giving staff a voice

Communication is also important from bottom to top, says Deese. Because she knows staff feedback makes ACCA work better, she maintains an open door policy, drawing people into her office with a large bowl of candy. Deese also makes a point to get out from behind her desk daily, walk the halls of her facility, and engage with the staff: “I ask them, ‘What’s on your mind? How are you doing? How is your family?’”

“Many of our best ideas come from staff. I hear their wants and needs, and I want to do everything I can to fulfill them.”

This culture of listening has produced several performance- and morale-boosting ideas, including a scholarship program that helps entry-level ACCA staff pursue higher education opportunities. Staff members have also begun serving on board committees to help inform projects like a recent rebranding effort. “It’s about investing in people and giving them a voice,” said Deese.

Deese also emphasizes the little things as a way to make ACCA staff feel appreciated. On the anniversary date of their hire, for example, the organization gives nursing assistants and transportation drivers new uniforms so they do not have to pay out-of-pocket for work clothes.

“Many of our best ideas come from staff,” said Deese. “I’m here to serve them also. I hear their wants and needs, and I want to do everything I can to fulfill them.”

Ready for rainy days

ACCA has also been taking a holistic view of reserve-building. “We want to spend what we have on delivering services,” said Deese. “But when we looked at behind-the-scenes operations expenses a few years ago, it felt like we were barely making ends meet.”

To make a leaner organization, Deese and her team looked at every line item in the budget, all the way down to the costs of bathroom paper towels. Their decision to direct more money into reserves paid off almost immediately, when a CAL facility water heater broke, at a replacement cost approaching five figures. Because of their fiscal efforts, ACCA could remedy the situation without having to take on debt.

ACCA also found new ways to diversify income. The communications team began selling ad space in its Connections magazine, offsetting publication costs while promoting businesses that serve seniors. A bolder move was a new paid membership model for its programs, which had previously been offered to seniors at no cost. Deese reports that her team felt anxiety over the switch, but it turned out that people were glad to pay for services: “They came to us and asked why we hadn’t done it sooner!”

Support from the University, local businesses, and residents have also helped the ACCA realize savings while rooting the organization more firmly into the Athens community. ACCA oversees a network of 1,400 volunteers, who do everything from tending the community garden to distributing meals to teaching classes on nutrition and exercise. ACCA has also partnered with the University’s business school on curriculum for seniors, and with the social work studies department to assist with case management. Corporate engagement efforts have also brought volunteer participation from employees at big local players like Caterpillar, Zaxby’s, and The Coca-Cola Company.

As a result, Athenians have an engaged, easy-to-find, highly dependable partner for tackling the challenges of senior life, now and in the long-term. And internally, ACCA staff can rely on a progressive communication strategy that prioritizes their individual voices, ideas, and contributions, as well as cross-program coordination.

”The future of our organization is in the ideas and enthusiasm of our staff and our community,” said Deese. “I hear them every day.”


Brian Carr is communications consultant for GCN.

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