Former CEO John Skirven Reflects on 50 Years
This article was originally published February 23, 2022 on the American Society on Aging’s website here.
Success: An Original Area Agency on Aging at 50 Years
BY JOHN N. SKIRVEN
Tracing the 1960s origins of what became one of the first of nine area agencies on aging in the U.S., led by influential women with ties to local power brokers and driven by poverty and social change movements. Southeastern Virginia Areawide Model Program, Inc. (SEVAMP) was an expansion of Elise Margolius’s original vision to create a community-based network of services to assist older adults. After the 1965 passage of the Older Americans Act, funding was secured and what was then the Senior Citizens Service Center opened its doors in 1968.
The 1960s. The Vietnam war was raging. The civil rights movement was fully energized. The women’s liberation movement was awakening. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson’s Great Society programs were injecting federal policy and resources into local communities. Maggie Kuhn, advocating for institutionalized older adults, would in 1970 found The Gray Panthers after her forced retirement from the Presbyterian church.
These were the times that informed the vision for the regional entity that would become one of the first of nine area agencies on aging in the United States. In southeastern Virginia dramatic population growth, economic expansion, racial strife, and geopolitical turmoil mirrored the rest of the country. And unique to the region, realignments and mergers of city and county boundaries that form the modern day Hampton Roads region created intra-jurisdictional rivalries and competition for land, resources, and tax revenues, while significant numbers of children, families, and older Virginians were experiencing devastating poverty.
Fortunately, regional business and elected leaders turned to an independent, nonprofit planning organization to create and implement needed solutions to healthcare, mental health, substance abuse, family service, juvenile justice, and aging service needs. The leaders recognized that human service infrastructure required spanning city and county borders. Thus, it was through this trusted agency, led by influential women with powerful ties to civic authority and financial support, that the area agency on aging came to be.
Poverty and Social Change Drive Need for Area Agency on Aging
The Southeastern Virginia Areawide Model Program, Inc. (SEVAMP) does business today as Senior Services of Southeastern Virginia. It is the area agency on aging for Virginia Planning and Service Area (PSA) 20, which includes six cities and two counties. PSA 20 spans 2,000 square miles, including dense urban neighborhoods, sprawling suburban communities, and vast rural agricultural land. It is bounded on the north by the Chesapeake Bay, on the south by the North Carolina border, on the east by the Atlantic Ocean, and on the west by vast tracts of farmland. When SEVAMP was established, the region was known as Tidewater. In 2021 the region is called Hampton Roads. Then, as now, Senior Services is headquartered in Norfolk, Virginia.
The vision and early work which became SEVAMP was conceived and nurtured during an era in which important economic, political, and social forces created daunting conditions for advocates to press the needs of older people. Even though people older than age 60 constituted 11 percent of the 1960 urban population in Norfolk and Portsmouth, their needs were overshadowed by the explosive growth of younger families fueled by expansion at multiple military installations including Norfolk Naval Station, the world’s largest naval base.
Commercial shipping, maritime construction, and space exploration were also principal drivers of the local economy. Although the Vietnam war was raging, President Kennedy’s decision to “set sail on this new sea” (of space) (1962) relied upon the Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Virginia, and the Norfolk Naval Station for engineering, planning, and test flights for the Apollo space capsules used in the lunar missions (Naval Station Norfolk, 2021).
Massive military and industrial expansion required an increased workforce, rapid supply chain expansion, housing development, and public service infrastructure growth including schools, roads, and municipal services.
This economic surge and population boom triggered local land use decisions to permit new subdivisions, new strip commercial centers along highways, and new suburban malls outside city boundaries. Cities, with limited land and in need of additional tax revenues for growing populations, aggressively sought to annex adjoining county land, then allowable under Virginia law.
The region was reshaped. In 1961, the rural town of Franklin incorporated as an independent city surrounded by Isle of Wight and Southampton counties. In 1963, the small resort city of Virginia Beach annexed Princess Anne County; and the City of Chesapeake was created through the merger of Norfolk County and South Norfolk. Coincidentally, the City of Suffolk was absorbing smaller towns and in 1974 annexed Nansemond County to become the city with the largest land mass in Virginia.
In the midst of this geopolitical realignment, government, military, and business leaders paid little attention to older citizens despite poverty rates exceeding the national average of 28.5% for people ages 65 and older.
The stress of coping with rapid growth revealed parochial thinking and counterproductive rivalries between different jurisdictions. The challenges of choosing where to build new roads, schools, and water/sewer systems were exacerbated by the fragmented approach and competitive attitudes between the separate cities and counties.
Competition and conflict were relieved by only occasional cooperation and substantive partnerships between jurisdictions. Proposals by cities to annex tax-generating areas of counties were viewed as “land grabs” by county officials. Annexations by cities transferred land and voters away from county officials and typically the parcels “lost” to the city had generated higher-than-average property taxes.
Racial segregation, despite the final 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, was the norm. “Separate but equal,” although unconstitutional, continued to be the operational basis for public policy and planning. Massive Resistance was a policy adopted in 1956 by Virginia’s state government to block the desegregation of public schools (Daugherity, n.d.). Rather than integrate schools in Virginia, Governor J. Lindsay Almond in September 1958 ordered schools closed in Norfolk, Charlottesville, and Front Royal. Only after additional court orders would “The Norfolk 17,” a group of African American students, on February 2, 1959, attend “white” public schools. Full integration of all Virginia schools did not occur until 1970 (Senior Services of Southeastern Virginia, 2010).
Prominent Local Women Behind the Push to Help Older Adults
In this environment, the concerns of older adults were championed by nongovernmental advocates, led by determined and well-connected local women, who wielded considerable influence with religious, political, industrial, military, and private sector business leaders.
The vision for SEVAMP was the dream of Elise L. Margolius, who in 1952, at age 50, was appointed Chairman of the Committee on Aging of The Health, Welfare and Recreation Planning Council (The Planning Council), a regional nonprofit think tank and planning organization (Margolius, 1998).
The Planning Council, established in 1941, was, and continues to be the organization to which local governments, the private sector, and the military turn for local and regional human services planning.
The Planning Council generates the data, convenes the stakeholders, develops the plans, and has launched all of the major regional human service systems in Southeastern Virginia since its inception. Its credits include the Eastern Virginia Medical School, the Navy Fleet and Family Services Center, the licensed family daycare system, The Foodbank of Southeastern Virginia and the Eastern Shore, the regional information and referral system, and the area agency on aging.
Margolius’ dream was to create a community-based network of services to assist older adults, despite a youth-oriented and institutionally biased culture. As a prominent member of Norfolk society, her influence reached to Richmond and Washington. She not only generated support for the 1958 creation of the Virginia Commission on Aging (now the Commonwealth Council on Aging), staffed by the state unit on aging; but also through her leadership and unrelenting advocacy in 1961 she was invited to and attended the first White House Conference on Aging (WHCOA).
Margolius did not go it alone. She engaged the Junior League, The Women’s Club, and the National Council of Jewish Women to mobilize churches, synagogues, and community organizations to establish ministries, clubs, and social groups for older parishioners and others concerned about the plight of older people throughout Tidewater.
In preparation for the 1961 WHCOA, the Committee on Aging, aware that socialization combats loneliness; encouraged organizations, churches, and agencies to sponsor senior citizen clubs. The press, radio, and television stations cooperated and donated space and time. Early successes were the newly established Ocean View 60 Plus Club in Norfolk and the Middle Age Club at a Catholic church.
In December 1960 the Committee on Aging, led by Margolius, organized a three-part “Information Series on Aging” featuring topics including economics, medical issues, housing, and religion, as well as community relationships—the first such gathering of its kind. Following the WHCOA, a speaker’s bureau was established and became a central resource for arranging programs for the emerging senior club network. Members of these clubs connected with one another through overlapping social circles. By 1964, fifteen senior citizen clubs, some with as many as 200 members each, were active (Margolius, 1998).
The growing senior network generated increased pressure for services for this newly visible constituency. The aging network leadership understood the need for data to prove their case. In 1964, with funding from The Norfolk Section of the National Council of Jewish Women, the Planning Council conducted the first organized regional aging services assessment “of what is now available, what should be expanded and what should be added” (Ledger Star, 1964).
The study design tested the establishment of a “Senior Service Corps” to mobilize older citizens to perform volunteer and charitable work. The study not only yielded solid information, but also increased the stature and scope of the Committee, which renamed itself “The Senior Citizens Service Bureau.” At the core of the vision for the Bureau’s work was a central senior center that would not only serve individuals but also be an “umbrella organization” to support the developing community-based network of clubs.
The study revealed multiple issues that needed to be addressed. Transportation, social isolation, significant poverty among older individuals, affordable housing (especially in urban neighborhoods), and lack of access and ability to afford healthcare. (Medicare and Medicaid would not be enacted until 1965).
The senior clubs also were fostering an understanding of recent retirees’ needs. “One of the big things we found was that newly retired couples were struggling with learning how to cook for two. This was the ‘Pepsi Generation’ and the ‘Metrecal for Lunch Bunch’ who were now getting older” (E. Bradshaw, personal communication, July 7, 2021).
African American churches, sororities, and fraternities sponsored senior citizen ministries and clubs. Despite segregation, communication did occur between the diverse clubs. “The clubs weren’t integrated because they were in the churches in their own neighborhoods. The Black churches had their own clubs and we did talk with them through The Planning Council,” recalled Eleanor Bradshaw.
It is significant to note that The Board of Directors of what would become the Senior Citizen Service Center of Tidewater was integrated. However, the clubs remained segregated.
Senior Citizens Service Center Opens
Following the 1965 passage of the Older Americans Act and the subsequent creation of the Virginia State Office on Aging, federal funds became available to implement local aging programs. The Planning Council had a board of directors with significant reach and Margolius had assembled a leadership circle that included many prominent individuals primarily from Norfolk and Virginia Beach. Among them was Rt Rev. Msgr. C. F. Dozier, the wives of local and state legislators, and Rev. Walton Davis, pastor of the Episcopal church where General Douglas McArthur’s funeral was held in 1964.
The Planning Council, with support from the United Community Fund, hired Eleanor “Sugar” Bradshaw, who was active in implementing community programs, to write a grant proposal to the State Office on Aging to fund the senior center. Submitted in 1967 by The Planning Council, whose 501(c)(3) status was required, it subsequently established the Senior Citizens Service Center of Tidewater on March 29, 1968. Among the incorporators was Emily Spong, mother of U.S. Senator William B. Spong, Jr.
Not surprisingly, given its quality and list of supporters with ties to Richmond, the proposal was successful. Margolius’ vision had become a reality. The Senior Citizens Service Center opened its doors on May 8, 1968. Several months later, The Planning Council relinquished its parentage and the Center became an independent agency, in March 1968 incorporating as a 501(c)(3). Following the expiration of the state grant, ongoing funding was provided by the United Community Fund.
The Center quickly expanded services to Virginia Beach and Chesapeake. The Planning Council, spurred by its President, Connie Laws, continued to press for resources to address not only the needs of impoverished older adults but also to harness their strengths. In 1969, the Norfolk Model Cities Program, in a response to a request from the U.S. Special Senate Committee on Aging regarding OAA Title V training grants’ impact on Model Cities, reported that they had received a Model Cities grant of $49,188 to establish a Senior Citizens Volunteer Program.
The program also reported that another proposal, by the Senior Citizens Service Center of Tidewater to the Administration on Aging for $131,132, was denied. That proposal would have created a nutrition program for elders to be delivered in Model City neighborhood schools. The proposals were written by the Planning Council, and later implemented with Areawide Model Program funds (Slater, 1969).
The cities and counties in Hampton Roads (and elsewhere in the Commonwealth) continued to compete on nearly every level even as they faced common issues. The Virginia General Assembly in 1966 addressed this fragmentation through legislation, creating the Metropolitan Areas Study Commission. The Commission’s report produced a new concept, which was implemented in 1968: the creation of Planning District Commissions (PDC) that would function as regional levels of government but would not be actual regional governments.
Virginia was divided into twenty-one PDCs. The reshaped “Tidewater” region was designated PDC 20 to include the cities of Chesapeake, Franklin, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Suffolk, Virginia Beach and Isle of Wight, and Southampton counties. The “Mayors and Chairs,” understanding that state aid would depend upon “voluntary” participation in the PDC, unanimously agreed to support this new entity.
Faced with the federal requirement to define Older American Act Planning and Service Area (PSA) boundaries, the new PDC boundaries were used. SEVAMP was designated PSA 20.
The Senior Citizens Service Center of Tidewater continued to gain strength and extend its reach with The Planning Council as its ongoing partner, building support from regional and state power brokers. Connie Laws, President of the Planning Council when Sugar Bradshaw was hired, transitioned in 1972 from board to staff.
“She delighted in calling herself The Aging Planner. She was herself aging, having already taught school for decades before turning to a full-time career in planning. But she also made it her job to plan for the aging of Tidewater. The daughter of a shipyard owner, her leadership skills were legendary, a combination of fierce intellect and social savvy that made her an irresistible force even in a world not yet accustomed to strong-willed feminists” (Connie Laws obituary, 2017).
Connie Laws was widely respected and a force to be reckoned with. When health and human service opportunities arose, the Planning Council was called into action. Laws commandeered talent and power at all levels and from every locality. It was known that one did not say no to her.
Prior to the amendments of 1973, the Older Americans Act provided support for discrete services designed to respond to particular needs of older persons in scattered local communities. Under the 1969 amendments, a program of Areawide Model Projects had been initiated to test the viability of providing a network of coordinated service systems to serve older persons (Special Committee on Aging, U.S. Senate, 1974).
Areawide Model First Launched
Connie Laws expanded Margolius’ vision beyond a senior center and a network of clubs, envisioning the areawide model program for Southeastern Virginia as a comprehensive coordinating agency which would tie together diverse and duplicated programs for older adults at centers and agencies all over Tidewater. A most fortuitous event occurred when in 1969 Ann Harvey was hired to do the groundwork for the proposal. Harvey had moved from Richmond to Virginia Beach, having chaired human resources planning for the Division of State Planning and Community Affairs (Nichols, 1973), the same agency that had funded the Senior Citizens Service Center of Tidewater.
The Planning Council convened planners from all eight jurisdictions in PDC 20, bringing together their unique rural, urban, and suburban perspectives. Led by Connie Laws, who authored the proposal across the span of six months, the collaborative planning group framed the structure for an “area wide” initiative that was based on “jurisdictional equity,” unanimous government support for a regional entity, a small central staff, subcontracts with cities, counties, and other nonprofit entities; and the capacity to provide direct services if needed. In keeping with funding source terminology and geography, the planned entity was called “The Southeastern Virginia Areawide Model Program” (SEVAMP).
A major component of the areawide model was a methodology and use of existing technology for a centralized regional information and referral tracking system. Submitted in 1971, the application was successful.
“The program was formally initiated at the end of fiscal year 1971 with the approval of the first nine Areawide Model Projects. (Maine, Mississippi, Nebraska, Oregon, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, and Virginia). Subsequently in fiscal year 1972, 12 additional projects were funded. By the end of fiscal year 1973 the 21 projects were in their first or second phase of program implementation. Of these projects, nine were operated directly by State Agencies, and 12 others have been sub-contracted by State agencies to public or private organizations in the designated areas” (Special Committee on Aging, U.S. Senate, 1974).
SEVAMP was technically operated by the State Office on Aging, however, “… it [State Office on Aging] contracted with the local Health, Welfare and Recreation Planning Council [The Planning Council)] to conduct activities related to the first 120 day planning period” (U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, 1974).
The Planning Council’s plan was for the new entity to be an independent 501(c)(3) governed by a board of directors with equal representation from all eight jurisdictions and board seats for the State Office on Aging. For this to be accomplished The Planning Council once again needed to relinquish its “parentage.”
The Senior Citizens Service Center of Tidewater was by then the recognized leading aging organization in the region, with robust programs and a network of related urban and suburban senior clubs, but with fewer in rural areas. Its leaders, who had contributed to the Administration on Aging proposal development and who had nurtured grassroots, community, and political support, could have mounted a competitive position, vying for leadership of the new multipurpose agency. Such a rivalry was not to be.
Name Evolves Via Collaboration
Instead, through the guidance of The Planning Council and “with the approval of Elise Margolius, who opposed two independent agencies, for the good of the cause, on January 20, 1972, the Senior Citizens Service Center of Tidewater Board voted to rescind its autonomy and become and an Advisory Board” (Margolius, 1998). At that same meeting the Senior Citizens Service Center of Tidewater officially amended its Articles of Incorporation to change the name of the corporation to “Southeastern Virginia Areawide Model Program” (Senior Citizens Service Center of Tidewater, 1972).
Through the winter of 1972, the planners continued to meet to build out the implementation plan. Through the planning process, several additional influential members from rural and urban jurisdictions were recruited, including the Vice Mayor of Norfolk, an Isle of Wight School Board member, the Franklin City Manager, and the Suffolk Welfare Superintendent.
In a display of regionalism, on April 13, 1972, the organizational meeting of the Board of Directors of SEVAMP, with all jurisdictions in PSA 20 represented, including the State Office on Aging, adopted new bylaws. The contract with the State Office on Aging was executed at this meeting, ensuring the flow of funds.
Ann Harvey’s hire as the Project Coordinator was unanimously affirmed. Federal guidelines required that both the Administration on Aging and the State Office on Aging recommend her. They did. The board took immediate action to authorize Harvey to enter into contracts to initiate services, hire staff, and seek office space. SEVAMP was now operational (SEVAMP Board of Directors, 1972).
“One year after beginning operations, the Southeastern Virginia Areawide Model Program (SEVAMP) has aided thousands of Tidewater area senior citizens—yet has just scratched the surface of those to serve.
“We know there are about 72,000 senior citizens over 60 whom we can serve,” said Harvey, SEVAMP Executive Director. “We have given out 11,365 identification cards for use on Tidewater Metro Transit buses. And we transport around 500 per week in our mini-buses.” Harvey said that between 2,000 and 3,000 persons use area senior centers each week.
The scope of program offerings grew quickly in 1973, including the purchase of recreational vehicles for outreach to rural communities to offer classes, health screenings, and access to benefits. SEVAMP’s ethos was innovation.
“This is an experimental program, with many of our projects being tried for the first time. Not only could SEVAMP be the national model, it could become the Office of Aging for the Tidewater Area” (Nichols, 1973).
SEVAMP did become the Area Agency on Aging for PSA 20. Its centralized information and referral program became a national model. The extensive work that had built the network of local clubs and service sites formed the foundation for expansion into urban neighborhoods and rural communities with large African American populations, providing services and opportunities for older Americans with the greatest social and economic needs.
SEVAMP continued to add new federally funded programs as they became available in its first two decades, including the Senior Community Service Employment Program, the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program, and the Senior Companion Program. Over the next three decades, Senior Services of Southeastern Virginia, under the new trade name adopted in 1997, continued to embrace innovation as its guiding principle. In partnership with three other Area Agencies on Aging, Senior Services piloted the Care Coordination for Elderly Virginians Program and multiple programs serving caregivers and veterans. Most recently Senior Services was a partner in the Eastern Virginia Care Transitions Partnership and a founding member of VAAACares.
Senior Services today is one of only four of the original areawide model programs that became an Area Agency on Aging. Its longevity is testament to the wisdom of the Older Americans Act, consistent leadership and support from its regional Board of Directors, the tenacity and skills of its staff, and its lived values: Courage, Trust, Respect, Results.
Senior Service’s future continues to be informed and driven by the wisdom of its first Director, Anne Harvey, “But there is so much work left to be done,” as she said (Nichols, 1973).
John Skirven, MSS, is principal of Skirven Consulting and previously served as the CEO of Senior Services of Southeastern Virginia, in Norfolk.
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- Nichols, J. (1973, July). Sevamp’s a ticket for present and future. Virginian Pilot.
- Senior Services of Southeastern Virginia. 2010. Franklin Virginia Registry of Historic Places Application. Slater, D. A. (1969, November 18) Letter to Sen. Frank Moss. U.S. Senate Select Committee on Aging.
- Senior Citizens Service Center of Tidewater. 1972. Articles of Amendment of the Articles of Incorporation of Senior Citizens Service Center of Tidewater, January 20.
- SEVAMP Board of Directors. 1972. Minutes, April 13. Trinity Episcopal Church.
- U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging. Developments in Aging: 1973 and January–March 1974. https://www.aging.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/reports/rpt274.pdf.