There’s an argument to be made that leading a council on aging is as much ministry work as being a pastor. And in New Bedford’s case, retiring Council on Aging director Debra Lee has been both.
Lee relinquished the reins at the COA this spring after 10 years in the position. She leaves to continue her role as pastor at her current church, First Baptist in Swansea, and take on a second pastorate in Warren, R.I.
In leaving, she said she’ll miss the creative process of trouble-shooting problems for the city’s older population, including creating programming and adjusting existing programs to better meet their needs.
“The creativity of the job is prob-ably what I’ll miss the most,” said Lee. “To be able to look at something and say, ‘How can I fix this?’”
Lee had been at the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health before applying for the New Bedford position in late 2012. Her job involved traveling throughout the southeastern part of the state to deliver staff education. She saw the COA position as an opportunity to bring her varied skills – in social science, mental health and gerontology – together into one role.
“All the pieces fit together; nothing’s ever wasted,” she said about her career trajectory. “Everything you did along the line feeds into what you ultimately decide to do.”
In her time in New Bedford, Lee brought technology to the COA, created a mental health regional team, took on ageism, participated in a project to create a more age-friendly city, and created a social day program that now serves nearly 85 people a week.
When she arrived in 2013, she said, everything was still done on paper; nothing was electronic. It was like stepping back in time.
“It was nice to be able to bring them into (the 21st century). We created something out of practically nothing,” said Lee, noting that this included implementing a system where participants who attend events and programming check in electronically using a keycard.
At the time, the city had five active COA locations, but two – the New Bedford Hotel and Ashley Park – closed soon afterwards.
In her decision-making, Lee was always mindful that New Bedford has the second highest percentage of residents who are age 60 and over in the state, she said, second only to Quincy.
One of her early projects was sending a survey out to 2,000 older adults who used services in the city. The survey, conducted years before the COVID-19 pandemic made mental health a stronger focus, hit a nerve with respondents, 1,600 of whom sent in answers.
Of that number, Lee said, 55 percent indicated they needed help.
From that response grew a regional mental health team called EMHOT, which stands for Elderly Mental Health Outreach Team, which still exists today. The program grew to include multiple regions in the state which receive annual legislative funding to continue operating.
EMHOT functions locally with the help of partners including Coastline; The Bridge, a Center for Hope and Healing; Bristol Elder Services; the Inter-Church Council of Greater New Bedford; and contracted clinicians and other professionals.
Lee also worked with Coastline and then CEO Paula Shiner on the New Bedford Age-Friendly initiative. The project was designed to create better age-centered thinking in all areas of the city, including, but not limited to, older needs.
One of her latest projects, Lee said, has been securing a $40,000 grant from the state to provide social day scholarships to families that need them and to extend the hours of social day programming. Implementation of that grant is expected to start this fall, she said.
In her time as COA director, Lee put much of her energy into creating a social day program in the city to give older adults a place to go for socialization, engagement, and support.
In 2023, the program moved to the Buttonwood Senior Center, a decision that received pushback from older adults in the city who protested the change, one of a series of moves in services over the years, and criticized the COA for what they said was a reduction in activities and programs.
For Lee, though, the move was a positive one, allowing an increase in the number of social day participants, a service that is desperately needed, she said.
Looking to the future, Lee is now focusing on expanding her ministry.
Her multiple roles, she said, “will allow me to do ministry full-time because all these jobs are ministry-related – (being a) Community Nurse hospice chaplain; working for the Conference of Baptist ministers; and then working the two churches – it’s all ministry. My goal was always to be a full-time pastor, but there aren’t a lot of churches that can hire a full-time pastor.”
The opportunities that appeared answered her prayers.
“I lifted it up in prayer and just said, ‘What can I do?’” Lee said. “And then the job for the Conference of Baptist Minsters opened up (and) that was way more than I needed to be full-time.”
“Doors opened,” she added, “You always have to pay attention to those open doors.”