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A Short Retirement Anticipated For 30-Year Senior Center Employee

Matthew Hersh

Three decades ago, after finishing college and looking for a job, Sue Tillet walked into an occupation, as recent graduates often do, not really knowing what she was going to do.

She had no idea that what was meant to be a stopgap job answering phones at the then newly-founded Princeton Senior Resource Center would develop into a career assisting residents in need of additional care and attention.

As Ms. Tillet, 58, and blind from birth, adjusts to her recent retirement, she has come to think of her career not as an accident but as something she was meant to do.

"I started dealing with the people that came in and PSRC wanted me to go out and do some visiting and get to know people." That, however, was not so easy for Ms. Tillet. "I was sort of shy in those days."

"I didn't know who lived in which apartment and didn't feel comfortable just knocking on the door."

At its inception, PSRC largely oversaw Spruce Circle, and Ms. Tillet would accompany PSRC co-founder and former director, Jocelyn Helm, on visits to homes as rent checks were collected.

That "get-to-know-you" initiative slowly transformed into what would become her trademark at PSRC: the HomeFriends program. Ms. Tillet, along with HomeFriends director Barbara Prunell, launched the program as a friendly-visitor service by way of a United Way grant. It is now approaching its 20th year.

Geared for seniors and disabled people, the HomeFriends program was formed in response to a growing need for companionship and support for home-based elderly in Princeton and surrounding communities.

Around the same time, Princeton High School was running the former Youth Employment Service that oversaw a subsidized program called "CHORE," assigning students to the homes of seniors in the community to perform chores around the house and to run errands. When the Youth Employment Service program folded, organizers approached PSRC to see if they wanted to takeover CHORE.

The program was changed to Local Intergenerational Network of Kindness (LINK), which literally establishes a link between the CHORE program and the HomeFriends network: a support service that places high school students with elderly or disabled Princeton residents, with students visiting one to two hours each week.

Interestingly, the acronym "LINK" was established before it stood for anything, Ms. Tillet simply knew there was a link to be made between the programs, generations, and neighbors.

The program was slow getting off the ground, but with a starter fund of $3,000 and a list of 10 seniors and 10 students, LINK finally got the legs it needed to be successful.

"I called the students to see if everyone was going to hang in," Ms. Tillet said, worrying that volunteers might be hard to come by.

All but one student agreed to participate, and 11 years later, the program is still strong.

"They hung in, and they played by the new rules" – rules, Ms. Tillet said, that will continue to apply to a new administration now that she is retired.

Susan Hoskins, PSRC director is confident that Ms. Tillet's legacy will continue to ensure a quality service: "Sue built a great program, and one of the artforms is matching the interest of the volunteer with the person visiting."

Humbled by her adeptness as a matchmaker, Ms. Tillet did say that it was a skill that she had to develop, adding that her role is overshadowed by the relationships established through the various programs.

"It's better than any recognition," she said.

However, after more than three decades caring for the community, Ms. Tillet is ready to take some time for herself, but expects to eventually get back to work in the so-called "selfless sector."

"I would like to run another small volunteer program, or be a companion to an elderly person," she said, adding that she would also like to initiate programs teaching children about disabilities; she mentioned the former Princeton Regional Schools handicapped awareness programs.

But for now, a break is in order, or at least it was.

"This morning, I started updating my resume; I guess I'm ready to start looking again."


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