Samaritans Celebrate Their Fortieth Birthday

Published in Woonsocket Call on January 22, 2017

In 2001, Denise Panichas took the temporary job as executive director of The Samaritans of Rhode Island, only expecting to stay at the helm for six week. Looking back over the last 16 years the Woonsocket resident clearly sees the hook that has kept her in her very demanding job.

“After my arrival people I knew, from all walks of life, came up to me sharing their personal stories of losing a loved one to suicide or being a caregiver to a person with physical or behavioral problems,” says Panichas. “My decision to stay in my temporary position for just one week, turned into two weeks and then time just quickly flew by,” she says, noting that her empathy grew daily with each encounter with Rhode Islanders who suffered the tragic loss of a loved one.

Surviving the Financial Storm

Running a small statewide nonprofit is not as easy as one thinks, notes Panichas, as she reflected on the uncontrollable obstacles she had to overcome to keep The Samaritans, the state’s only nonprofit group exclusively dedicated to suicide prevention and education, financially afloat.

Panichas watched her donations dry up as the America’s economy spiraled out of control during the 2008 financial crisis, some calling it the nation’s worst the 1930’s Great Depression. Before that, at the state-level, The Samaritans along with many of Rhode Island’s nonprofits, lost funding when the United Way of Rhode Island eliminated member agencies, cutting assistance to many nonprofit groups. “The Samaritans lost over $50,000 from these cuts,” says Panichas, stressing that that downsizing and redirected fundraising efforts to target individual contributors and special event fundraisers (“Cross the Bridge to Hope” at the Pell Bridge Run) brought in needed funds into the nonprofit’s coffers to man the hotlines and its grief support group.

Today, 17 percent of The Samaritan’s funding comes from state and local grants, the rest coming from foundation, individual, corporate and special event contributions. Eighty one percent of its fundraising dollars is allocated to program, she says.

But, Panichas now sees better times for The Samaritans as she begins organizing events and programs that will take place in the upcoming months to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of The Samaritans. “In February, we are planning to release the details about the free programs and special events that will serve as our fundraisers,” she says.

Panichas and her board of 12 community leaders, from six Rhode Island communities and nearby Massachusetts, are also in discussion with the Preservation Society of Pawtucket to purchase the Baker-Hanley House, one of the City’s oldest houses, on Park Place, to serve as its first owned headquarters. The agency is planning a “Peace Garden” at the side of the historic structure to allow visitors to mediate and reflect on loved ones they have lost through suicide. .

Over forty years, The Samaritans have worked hard to bring the topic of suicide out of the closet and into public discussion, say Meredith Hampton, president of The Samaritan’s who has served on its board for over 15 years. “We have persevered and gained public support who have rallied behind our efforts,” she says.

Like Panichas, Hampton, a Cranston resident who serves as senior project manager for Norwood, Massachusetts-based Cramer Production Company, a marketing and communications firm, is thrilled that her nonprofit is celebrating its ruby anniversary of providing programs and services to the Rhode Island community. Hampton notes that owning a building will “put a face to the organization” and she expects the capital campaign to be announced in a couple of months.

Reaching out to Rhode Island’s Lonely

“Feeling low with nowhere to turn” noted songwriter Bill Withers says is a public service announcement regularly played, there is a place to call – The Samaritans – where trained volunteers “are there to listen.” Incorporated in 1977, the Pawtucket-based nonprofit program is dedicated to reducing the occurrence of suicide by befriending the despairing and lonely throughout the state’s 39 cities and towns.

Since the inception, The Samaritans has received more than 550,000 calls and trained more 1,355 volunteers to answer its confidential and anonymous Hotline/Listening Lines.

With the first Samaritan branch started in England in 1953, independent Samaritan branches can now be found in more than 40 countries of the world. “Samaritans, can I help you?” is quietly spoken into the phone across the world in a multilingual chorus of voices,” notes its web site.

The communication-based program teaches volunteers to effectively listen to people who are in crisis, says Panichas, noting that conversations are free, confidential and, most importantly, anonymous.

A rigorous 21-hour training program teaches volunteers to listen to callers without expressing personal judgments or opinions. Panichas said that the listening techniques called “befriending,” calls for 90 percent listening and 10 percent talking.
“Suicide is considered a missed opportunity in prevention,” says Panichas. She stresses, “If you are doing all the talking there is a very chance that you will miss what is really bothering the hopeless caller.”

Panichas noted in 2016 more than 5,491 calls were logged into The Samaritans’ Listening Line, a great resource for caregivers and older Rhode Islanders. She estimates that 997 came from seniors.

In 2016, The Samaritans hosted over 108,305 visitors to its website, many going to caregiver information. The nonprofit’s website received 1,487,691 hits and 233,336 pages were viewed. Panichas believes that the increased website visits are due to the “growing problem of suicide and our nonprofit group’s effective use of social media.”

Other services include a peer-to-peer grief Safe Place Support Group for those left behind by suicide as well as community education programs.

The Samaritans can be the gateway to care or a “compassionate nonjudgmental voice on the other end of the line,” Panichas notes. “It doesn’t matter what your problem is, be it depression, suicidal thoughts, seeking resources for mental health services in the community or being lonely or just needing to talk, our volunteers are there to listen.”

Rhode Island’s Art Community Supports Program and Services

In December 2011, The Samaritans began a social venture, by relocating to the City of Pawtucket’s 307 acre Arts & Entertainment District. According to Panichas, a built out professional gallery allowed her to open the Forget-Me-Not Gallery and Community Education Center. Through networking and partnerships with Rhode Island’s fine arts and crafts community, “we are able to foster hope, inspiration and commemoration of the lives of our loved ones who have fallen victim to suicide,” she says.

“Every piece of art sold or every gift bought through our gift shop provides needed funded for our programs and also contributes to Rhode Island’s state artistic small business economy,” says Panichas.

Eric Auger of Pawtucket and co-owner of Ten31 Productions also in Pawtucket, volunteers his time and talent in curating gallery shows throughout the year, says Panichas, noting that there have been more than two dozen exhibits, performances and education programs since 2011.

At the Forget-Me-Not Gallery, no sales taxes are charged on one-of-a-kind pieces of art work. The gallery also is a retail site for Rhode Island-based Alex and Ani jewelry and other giftware.

For those seeking to financially support the programs of The Samaritans, its Gallery and Education Center is available to rent for special events, meetings and other types of occasions. For information on gallery rental, call the Samaritans business line at 401-721-5220; or go to http://www.samaritansri.org.

Need to Talk? Call a volunteer at The Samaritans. Call 401.272.4044 or toll free in RI (1-800) 365-4044.

For persons interested in more information about suicide emergencies, The Samaritans website, http://www.samaritansri.org, has an emergency checklist as well as information by city and town including Blackstone Valley communities from Pawtucket to Woonsocket.

AARP’s President Romasco Great Rhode Island Adventure

Published in Pawtucket Times, August 23, 2013

AARP’s top volunteer, President Robert G. Romasco, sees a key role for AARP in supporting the nation’s families, which is why he made a quick one-day trip to the Ocean State last week to help kick off the Back to School Celebration of RI, visiting three of the eleven sites throughout the state. Romasco came to endorse AARP Rhode Island’s strong involvement with this ongoing learning initiative. The state affiliate is a long-time Celebration Sponsor and Deborah Miller, Associate Director of Community Outreach, sits on the School Celebration’s Board of Directors.

Programs like Back to School Celebration of RI are important for AARP to strongly support, says Romasco, because of the changing demographics of its membership. Once viewed as an organization representing those in their mid-sixties and older, now aging baby boomers 50 plus make up one of the largest membership constituencies, over 100 million Americans.

AARP does not just serve the needs of these members, but their families as well, their elder parents, adult children and even grandchildren. AARP’s mission statement spotlights its focus, “issues that matter most to families such as healthcare, employment and income security, retirement planning, affordable utilities and protection from financial abuse.”

Years ago, a pair of shoes was seen as a status symbol for young students returning to school. Today it’s a backpack, says Romasco, who says that this annual community initiative gets children excited about going back to school after the long summer recess. “It’s also about helping families to prepare their children to have a successful school year,” he says.

The Back to School Celebration, in its ninth year, began with a modest effort to support children in struggling families. It all started with 300 backpacks. It has grown dramatically to 14,000 backpacks distributed this year, with local companies donating the school supplies for the initiative. Any parent will tell you that school supply costs add up, especially in large families. This assistance keeps back-to-school costs from sinking a tight family budget every fall.

A Jam Packed Schedule

On Saturday, August 17, after opening ceremonies at the William D’Abate School in Providence, Romasco traveled to the West End Community Center in the city to pass out backpacks, working side by side with AARP State Director Kathleen Connell and Phil Zarlengo of Jamestown, a past chairman of the AARP national board. From there, Romasco drove to Newport to observe backpack distribution at the East Bay Community
Action Program. While there, he toured the new facility, which provides community-based health services utilizing an innovative patient-centered approach to medical care.

Said Romasco at the opening ceremonies, “When people want to see how America can work, I say, ‘Let them come to Rhode Island … and see how a community can work together for the benefit of all families and the children who are our future.’”

Romasco concluded his visit with a luncheon in Newport with city officials and community leaders that included a presentation by Newport Director of Public Services William Riccio, who discussed the Broadway Streetscape redesign. AARP Rhode Island, as part of its statewide “complete streets” advocacy (as reported in my May 19, 2012 Commentary), supported the project, which will make Broadway more pedestrian and bike friendly while adding features embraced by retailers and business on the thoroughfare.

Breakfast at the Diner

Around 8:00 a.m., at Pawtucket’s historic Modern Diner on East Avenue, Romasco, 65, sat down with this columnist to explain the issues on the policy radar screen of the nation’s largest advocacy group.

We don’t oftentimes see powerful national leaders who oversee major aging organizations come to the Ocean State. But we did last week. As AARP President, Romasco’s 22-member volunteer Board of Directors approves all policies, programs, activities, and services and oversees a $1.5 billion operational budget for the Association’s 37 million members. The huge nonprofit, nonpartisan organization employs 2,400 employees, many based in every state and in the nation’s territories.

While many of AARP’s volunteer Board Members come up thru the rank and file in local State Chapters, this was not the case with Romasco. In 2005, at age 57, an old friend, who met him 35 years earlier when he consulted for AARP, urged him to respond to an open call for consideration for the top AARP leadership position. When the dust settled he was among “seven lucky individuals” chosen from a pool of 400 applicants.

According to Romasco, AARP brings in seven new board members every two years. “We look at a person’s diversity, not just in ethnicity and where a person lives, but what skills and points of views they bring,” he says, stressing that this creates a “good mix” on the group.

Many would consider Romasco’s appointment a very good choice. The retired businessman is a graduate from Harvard Business School with a Master of Business Administration, who previously received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Brandeis University.
During his 35 year working career, Romasco has held senior level positions at a number of prestigious national companies, including QVC, Inc., CIGNA, Inc. and J.C. Penny. Over the years at these companies, he has honed his skills in marketing, branding and organizational change. However, during his long career he did take a one-year sabbatical from his full-time job. “I actually got to see my kids go to school. I got to see them come home from the bus. ”

His presidency at the helm of AARP is very time consuming, “a full-time activity,” he quips. When responding to people who ask him if he is retired, Romasco nods, stating “I just don’t get paid anymore.”

Before becoming President, Romasco served as AARP board secretary/treasurer, and chaired the Audit and Finance Committee. He is a former member of the Board of Directors, of AARP’s Andrus Foundation.

Romasco personally gets it, that receiving a Social Security check can often times mean the difference between eating or not eating. With his mother bringing home a meager wage earned as a part-time seamstress, her survivor benefit check literally put food on the table for the young child and his sister.

His speaking schedule is jam packed, as he travels around the nation sharing his personal experiences as to the importance of Social Security impact on a family’s budget. These visits are used to get this message out: “Social Security is the only lifetime, inflation-protected guaranteed source of retirement income that most Americans will have.”

As the Congressional debate heats on Capitol Hill, as to modifying Social Security’s existing cost of living formula thru a chained CPI, Romasco warns that it’s not a minor tweak but one that can substantially reduce the amount of a retiree, a disabled person or veteran’s benefit check. According to AARP calculations, a 65 year old retiree would lose $662 over five years of retirement. After 20 years of Social Security, the benefit cut would amount to $9,139.

A chained CPI is just “bad policy, a bad idea” says, Romasco, one of the nation’s most visible aging advocates. “It is an attempt by Congress to balance the federal deficit on the back of the nation’s seniors,” he charges.

During my breakfast, Romasco tells me that AARP has unleashed one of its largest outreach efforts in its history. Its “You’ve Earned a Say,” initiative educates Americans about the policy debates on Social Security and provides them an opportunity to voice their views and concerns on the ongoing retirement policy debates in Congress. Rhode Island AARP oversees this initiative in the Ocean State (as detailed in my Commentary published Oct. 26, 2012),

Just last week, he says that petitions from 1.5 million people who voiced their opposition to the chained CPI calculations for annual COLA adjustments on 10,000 pages in 15 large boxes were carried to the House Ways and Means Committee.

Romasco says that AARP, through its successful efforts to collect these petitions from 4,000 town meetings held nationally, has enabled citizens to have an opportunity to express their opinions to their elected officials.

He smiles, noting that Congress has certainly heard from the nation’s aging baby boomer and seniors. “Congress certainly cannot ignore us with those delivered petitions.”

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

Antiquing a Great Leisure Actvity for Baby Boomers

           Published June 29, 2012           

           When furnishing your home, some might be drawn to Scandinavian design at IKEA Stores.  Personal taste and a love for traditional design furniture might bring others to Ethen Allen. For all those who like the more contemporary look, the Martha Stewart Furniture Collection may simply be their cup of tea.

            However, for Baby Boomers, Scott and Rae Davis, owners ofRhode Island’s largest antique mall, antiques are the way to go when furnishing your home. From college students, to young families, baby boomers, to even the retired, buying antiques can be a perfect solution to decorating your residence. 

            At age 50, Scott Davis, was an antique hobbyist for half of his life before he opened up Rhode Island Antique Mall inPawtucket.  His love for antiques is apparent. When asked, he quickly tells you that “Antiques make a house a home with their warmth, character and charm.”  More important, thePawtucketbusinessman will tell you that antiques will hold their value or appreciate compared to new furnishings that begin losing value immediately upon purchase. 

            Antiquing can provide you with hours of entertainment.  Especially, in winter time and rainy days, antique hunting can be a relaxing and enjoyable way to pass time without experiencing high pressure salesman or encountering large crowds while shopping at malls or large furniture stores,Davissays.   

            Today’s furniture is not built to last for a lifetime, Scott says.  “Antiques were crafted to last generations unlike today’s foreign imported products, carelessly made from particle board and drywall screws.”  Antiques almost always become family heirlooms, he says, “new items rarely do,” he observes.   

“Antiques impart a pride of ownership that is rarely equaled by new items, especially those imported from Asia,Davissays. 

           Davisrattles off a long list of other reasons to this writer, for people to consider antiquing as the way to go to when decorating your house.  “Antiques teach us about history and preserve our heritage.  They are also ‘Green’ and help preserve our natural resources; the ultimate form of recycling, he says.  

           Antiques almost always cost far less than their new counterparts,Davissays.  As an investment, antiques can even be considered assets by financial institutions and can become a significant part of one’s wealth-building strategy.

The ABC’s of Antiquing

            According toDavis, finding the right antiques for your décor may well depend on where and how you shop.  When visiting small independent shops you will usually get personalized service and advice but sacrifice the variety and selection found in a larger establishment.   Group shops or “Antique Malls,” offer a greater selection with lower prices because dealers within the mall must compete with one another.

           For those who go antiquing, the shopping experience is half the fun.Davis recommends that shoppers frequent shops that are enjoyable to be in (lighting, music, air conditioning, etc.).  “Choose shops with a good reputation, that have easy access and parking and reliable hours.  Small and out-of-the-way shops can be frustrating to find and disappointing once you get there,” he says as their hours and inventory can be inconsistent.

           Why not map an antiquing route and spend the day shopping?  Antique shops usually congregate near one another.

           Davis cautions antique shoppers to be wary of flea markets and auctions.  Antiques found at these places often times have hidden problems and the sellers can be less than reputable, he warns.  Also, avoid shops, especially those in “tourist traps” that sell repros because many times the repros are misrepresented as authentic or not clearly marked as reproductions.

Finding that Perfect Antique

            Don’t buy antiques from just anybody, warnsDavis. Always seek advice from reputable dealers you can trust.  Follow your gut and avoid advice from amateurs, he said.

            When shopping, also buy things that you like.  “Don’t be swayed by others to purchase items you won’t want to live with,”Davisadded.  “Most importantly, buy the best you can afford.  One exceptional piece will hold value better than 10 common pieces.”

           Davis believes that mixing and matching is the way to go when furnishing your home.  “Don’t be afraid to mix antique furnishing with new things.  They’ll work great together,” he says, adding that new upholstered furniture is brought to life when complimented with antique tables and cabinets for instance.

           Also, he recommends that the internet and books are keys to educating yourself about the world of antiques.  “Today there are thousands or books and websites on every subject imaginable.  Going on EBay can be a great way to learn about antiques and their values but be careful when buying on-lineDavisnotes; “Deals that seem to be too good to be true usually are.”

          Davis also warns shoppers to beware of reproductions, fakes, undisclosed repairs and “marriages” (mismatched parts).  They are becoming increasingly common.  “Avoid purchasing items like iron doorstops, mechanical banks, Asian artifacts and other commonly reproduced items unless you have a high level of knowledge in the field.”.  Most of these on today’s market are fakes so only buy them from a dealer you can trust.

If You Love It, Haggle…

        If you like something you see… buy it while you can,Davisrecommends.  Haggle on price when appropriate.  Most dealers will accept offers of 5% to possibly 20% under their ticket price on higher priced items (usually depending on what they paid for the piece),” he says or at least they’ll counter-offer.  “Dealers want to sell but replacing the sold items is becoming more difficult so be reasonable”.

      Remember, good antiques sell very fast and will likely not be there the next time you visit.

            For more information, contact Scott Davis, at RI Antiques Mall.  Go to www.riantiquesmall.com or email RIAntiquesMall@cox.net.

            Herb Weiss is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer who likes browsing in antique stores.  His Commentaries appear in two Rhode Island daily’s The Pawtucket Times and Woonsocket Call.