Seniors in and around Pleasanton will no longer have access to select cornerstone services after the recent elimination of a key initiative at the Senior Support Program of the Tri-Valley -- the Friendly Visiting Program.
The discontinuation of the popular volunteer service came as a shock to many and raised more questions about the organization as a whole, its leaders and their motives, and funding at this point of the pandemic.
Community members, as well as former SSPTV staff, have expressed concern over the visitor program's closure and leadership decisions from both the acting and former executive directors, as the Pleasanton-based nonprofit has now initiated the termination of several programs and positions, despite records seemingly confirming adequate funding for payroll and other services.
"I was told that my position as Friendly Visiting Program coordinator was eliminated due to restructuring in the nonprofit and I was to be laid off," said Pam Silliman, a former employee as of three weeks ago. "I have over 100 seniors in this program and dozens of volunteers; what's going to happen to them?"
Senior Support Program of the Tri-Valley is a registered nonprofit that aims to assist seniors in the community with various programs and resources, from counseling services to medication assistance to case management, according to its mission statement. The operation is run out of the Pleasanton Senior Center, but independent from the city government.
According to the organization's website, SSPTV is primarily funded through several Alameda County initiatives, including Area Agency on Aging, Public Health and Nutrition Services Department, and Behavioral Health Department. They also receive supportive funding from the cities of Dublin, Pleasanton and Livermore.
Silliman recalled her and several other employees being requested for separate phone reviews with SSPTV's current interim executive director, Mercel Amin, on July 22. It was during that call Silliman was informed her position, along with the Friendly Visiting Program and Caregiver Referral Program, were to be eliminated.
The Friendly Visiting Program connected volunteers with seniors who would spend time socializing or engaging in activities together. It was among the most-popular SSPTV programs, until it abruptly went away last month with little explanation to staff and volunteers involved and the public at-large.
Amin, as well as SSPTV board members contacted by the Weekly in recent weeks, did not answer questions about the Friendly Visiting Program's elimination nor the nonprofit overall.
"SSPTV is undergoing a transition and I'd be happy to connect in the weeks to come as things become official," Amin said in a brief email response to inquiries.
Silliman served as the Friendly Visiting Program coordinator for three years, a service that existed for over 40 years since the organization was founded.
"The seniors that are in this program, a lot of them have been in it for years and years and years," Silliman said. "They have a friendly visitor that used to come to their home; some would take them out for coffee, some would go to a movie once a week. It's amazing what the volunteers in this community do for their seniors."
After the COVID-19 pandemic forced the nonprofit to operate largely remotely, volunteers of the program adapted their work to continue services for the seniors. They began phone visitations and sent handmade cards to the seniors every month.
"It was a huge lift for the seniors to know that the community hadn't forgotten about them," Silliman said. "Now they have totally abandoned all of the seniors that have been in this program and are dependent on it."
At the time of Silliman's interview last week, senior clients of the Friendly Visiting Program had not been made aware of its termination -- almost 14 days after she was informed.
Volunteers of the program were also left confused amid word of its closure.
"After I retired from PUSD, I was looking for a way to volunteer," Pam Grove said.
In 2020, Grove reached out to Silliman who educated her on the Friendly Visiting Program and connected her with two seniors to visit with. Grove had been involved with the program ever since.
"This program has been so valuable to the isolated seniors in our community especially during the current pandemic," Grove said. "It's hard to believe that this program has abandoned vulnerable seniors who I'm sure looked forward to weekly interaction with their volunteers."
Grove also attested to the significance of the Friendly Visiting Program and its impact on seniors in the area.
"The program offered foot care, info about vaccines, made sure every senior in the program received holiday gifts and even coordinated with the Valley Quilters to provide every senior with a beautiful handmade quilt last December," she said.
Silliman questioned whether funding was the problem for the Friendly Visiting Program, saying she asked directly about that while on the phone call with Amin. "We've been told for months that all our contracts have been accepted again for this fiscal year," Silliman said. "I was told, 'No, the funding didn't get pulled back.'"
The visitor program's surprise elimination is the latest example of recent dysfunction within the longtime nonprofit.
Previous executive director Robert Taylor resigned last November after four years at the helm, with little to no notice provided publicly by the nonprofit upon his departure. Taylor now works as the chief revenue officer for an information-technology services and consulting operation, according to his LinkedIn profile.
After Taylor's exit, the SSPTV board appointed previous administrator Amin as the interim executive director while they undertook recruitment for a new leader.
But multiple staff members told the Weekly that the nonprofit has made no attempt at permanently filling the executive director position, despite it being a requirement for the agency's status.
Public records obtained by the Weekly show during his time as executive director, Taylor applied for and received almost half a million dollars of Paycheck Protection Program loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic.
The loans were received by the SSPTV from April 2020 to February 2021 -- and amounted to $221,200 each. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, Taylor cited the money would go toward payroll gaps. However, several sources confirmed the organization had already secured full funding for payroll by grants received from the county at the time the PPP applications were submitted.
Bank statements for SSPTV obtained by the Weekly show that the PPP loan funds were kept in a separate investment account and did not commingle with general funds of the nonprofit. Records also reflect that all loans and interest acquired via PPP were eventually forgiven by the federal government.
Former SSPTV employee Mary McNamara filed two complaints -- in fall 2021 and spring 2022 -- via the Small Business Administration's online system over the PPP loans and allegedly misleading applications filed on behalf of the local nonprofit. These however have not been investigated or further addressed by the federal agency, according to McNamara.
McNamara, an employee of SSPTV for seven years, including five in case management, until she was let go in 2020, was critical of Taylor's tenure.
"He didn't have experience with older adults," she said. "He was missing half the time. He wasn't around."
There are additional reports that during his time as director Taylor exhibited ineffective style and disconnection with SSPTV's service demographic. He did not have experience working with seniors before taking the job in 2017, according to multiple former staff members.
Taylor did not respond to requests for comment in recent weeks regarding any allegations or questions about his leadership during his time as executive director with SSPTV.
Other former staff members support claims of Taylor's indifferent leadership.
"(Taylor) was very disinterested in the population that we were serving. And every suggestion that we would have, as in a staff meeting, would be shut down as to going above and beyond what our seniors would need," Silliman said.
Silliman and other staffers showed interest in expanding their programs and creating more opportunities to connect with the seniors.
"It almost felt like we were going backwards instead of going forward with our mission statement, which is to provide seniors and in my program with socialization and be able to have them feel that they could stay independent and safe in their own home," Silliman said.
Curt Hawk, a retired fire captain of the Newark Fire Department, volunteered on several occasions with Senior Support. He had been familiar with the founding executive director, Marlene Petersen, until Taylor took over in January 2017. His wife, Lorie, began working for SSPTV in 1995.
"Over the years I was constantly impressed by the dedication of all of those who worked at Senior Support," Curt Hawk said. "The dedication of everyone was to do as much as possible, and then some, to provide a wide range of services, often personalized, to as many seniors as possible."
Hawk believes sentiment at the organization changed after new leadership.
"After director Petersen retired and the board hired Robert Taylor, my wife continued to work for Senior Support for about two years. During that time she and her fellow employees saw that the focus on providing the best for our senior citizens was lost," Hawk said.
In the wake of the closure of services provided by SSPTV, most recently the Friendly Visiting Program, concerns have grown around the organization's future plans. The nonprofit has not made any official statements on what the organization plans to do following the visiting program's elimination.