By Sandy Scarmack/Herald Staff Writer
GROVE CITY —
Facing what he calls an exploding population of people who are 85 years old and older, Sam Bellich, newly appointed director of Mercer County Area Agency on Aging Inc., says he intends to be the best advocate he can possibly be, even while needs outpace funding at every turn.
Bellich, 59, took over for Anne Marie Spiardi, a leader whose 40-year term in the previously uncharted field of advocacy for the elderly led to policies and practices so ingrained by officials today they are almost taken for granted.
"Back in the 1970s there were no laws, absolutely nothing to deal with adult protective services. We developed a system and a framework to help identify and intervene for those who were being exploited," Bellich said. "Anne Marie was behind those local initiatives that really made a tremendous difference back when those laws were being developed," he said.
Bellich has been working alongside Spiardi for 30 years, holding positions of increasing responsibility and helping form those programs that assist the elderly with everything from in-home care to adult daycare and transportation to advocacy and legal assistance.
"Some of the local initiatives really made a tremendous difference for the quality of living for the elderly," he added.
Early in its development the agency had much more flexibility in determining what its goals would be, Bellich said, but in the last decade state control has tightened the reins on some of that flexibility, in order to have consistency statewide.
Those restrictions forced the closure of one of the things Bellich was most proud of, the Sunbridge Personal Care Home. It was a place, he said, that was "really state-of-the-art" for its time and provided seniors who had no money a place to go when living at home was no longer possible.
The 56-bed center was closed after 15 years, he said, because state officials thought "that wasn't something we should be owning," he said. "But it was a beautiful concept and today there is more of a need than ever for a place like that," he said.
Those needs are nearly overwhelming because of what Bellich defines as "historically difficult funding challenges." The $3.4 million for the agency's operations comes from the Pennsylvania Lottery and Medicaid.. "We are a small non-profit corporation, much like Goodwill or the Salvation Army. People think we are a part of the county or the state, but we aren't," he said.
Funding has been cut for the last seven years and the agency is operating without a budget, because Bellich hasn't been told what the organization will get from the state. "We are shooting in the dark. We can only guess at this point," he said.
One of his biggest challenges will be to reduce the length of time seniors have to wait for some services.
"We've never had that before and I would like to reduce or eliminate it. Mostly, I want the agency to continue to be visible and keep services going at the same level," Bellich said.
He added that while financial woes are his biggest issue, he understands it is no different for other agencies. "Funding is at a premium. This economy, as we know, is not the best. Now more than ever we have to do more with less and be a good steward of the public money," he said.
Bellich has undergraduate degrees in government and legal studies and a master's degree in counseling from Slippery Rock University
"You know, what they say since the board appointed me. It's 'congratulations' in the morning and 'condolences' in the evening," he joked.
"Realistically, one of the things about the agency is that we have a tremendous body of employees. Very experienced people with whom I've served in the trenches. That is a tremendous gift to me," he said.
On a personal level, Bellich, who lives in Hermitage, said he thinks his personality will serve him well in his new role. "Anyone who knows me knows I'm not arrogant. Humility is the only way to live. Any administrator who brags about what he's done needs to look in the mirror and see the humbling fact that needs always outweigh resources. So I ask myself 'what can we do tomorrow to be better?' "
One of the things Bellich hopes he never loses is the ability to still make housecalls to seniors. He was out checking on a client on his second day in his new position. "I never lost the selfish need to have that contact with the people. I don't like sitting in an office," he said.
Published Jan. 23, 2013, in Allied News. Pick up a copy at 201 A Erie St., Grove City.