This article originally appeared in the August 2021 edition of Senior Scope. Article and photo by Seth Thomas.
Days after COVID-19 was declared a national emergency, Acushnet Council on Aging Director Heather Sylvia was already hard at work providing relief for her community. And, from there, her work never stopped.
For her effort, the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women formally recognized Sylvia as part of its 18th Annual Commonwealth Heroines of Massachusetts. The Commission noted she is a “bright star” and “without her commitment, many much-needed services would not be available in Acushnet.”
About 120 women were selected for the Commonwealth Heroines of 2021 for using their time and talent to make a difference, especially in a year shaped by the pandemic. The Commission on the Status of Women is an independent state agency that was legislatively created to promote equality, rights and opportunities for women. Representative Christopher Hendricks recommended Sylvia for the honor.
“Nominating Heather for this year’s Commonwealth Heroines of Massachusetts was a no-brainer and completely my honor. You cannot overstate her contributions to the Town of Acushnet and our seniors,” said Hendricks (D-11th Bristol) in a statement to Senior Scope. “She is always available to offer supportive advice and cheerful encouragement. Our community deeply appreciates her service.”
Various agencies from the Town of Acushnet rallied together to keep residents safe during the pandemic, whether it was ensuring that Coastline’s Meals on Wheels program remained in operation during the chaotic early days of the crisis, supplying more than 600 families with boxes of food last summer or coordinating with other agencies to help bring vaccinations to Acushnet.
She coordinated with the town to install a pavilion so COA patrons could participate in outdoor activities and worked alongside the Acushnet Emergency Management Agency (EMA) as part of the ongoing effort to provide free COVID testing.
“She’s been a ray of sunshine to us,” said Ed Caron, Deputy Director of the Acushnet EMA. “She’s also become a good friend to everyone – she’s helped us to become more of a family than just an organization.”
Prior to being recognized from the state as a Commonwealth Heroine, she was recognized by her own community. The Acushnet Board of Selectmen and local officials honored 25 individuals with citations at a ceremony, including Sylvia, whom Fire Chief/EMS Director Kevin Gallagher referred to as the “big sister” of Acushnet.
“Heather Sylvia is the glue that holds us all together,” Gallagher said at the time. “What Heather has done for the seniors in town and [building] the council on aging to be one of the gems that it is – and then taking on such responsibility with testing and vaccination… the amount of time she gives to helping the folks of Acushnet can’t be described.”
When asked about her recent accolades, Sylvia is quick to point to “Team Acushnet” – the group of volunteers, town employees, and friends who joined her in responding to the need created by the pandemic.
“I feel like it was time to give back to the community during the pandemic, but I didn’t do it by myself,” Sylvia said. “Because we have such a great network, we were able to call people and get help.”
Alice Rebelo, who works at Vibra Hospital and serves as chairperson on Coastline’s Advisory Council, spent months working alongside Sylvia at the Acushnet COA delivering meals and distributing food. Rebelo said Sylvia worked on weekends and through vacations.
“Not once did I hear her complain,” said Rebelo. “Heather is the most thoughtful person that I have ever worked with.”
While Sylvia worked on pandemic relief, she managed to find time for yet another lofty task: becoming a certified council on aging director with the The Massachusetts Association of Councils on Aging (MCOA), a statewide membership association that represents more than 300 councils on aging in the Commonwealth.
The certification process began before the state of emergency and continued throughout. Sylvia was tasked with refreshing some of the elements of the Acushnet COA to better promote the center and serve the public. According to a release from the MCOA, five people completed the certification process statewide.