A seed of compassion was planted. A community reaps the harvest.

In ancient Rome, Janus was the god of beginnings and endings. He was usually portrayed with two faces — one looking behind, the other ahead.

As humans, we mark time. And a new year is both a beginning and an end. In our newspaper this week, we take a 25-year look back to the founding of the Community Caregivers and also a look forward as the organization has just hired a new director.

As we interviewed people and read through scores of columns and stories we’ve published from and about the Caregivers over the years, one story stood out, one that had never been written.

So we decided to tell it here because it seemed to us, as we heard it, emblematic of what “community” means.

We do not think it is accidental that Community Caregivers was founded in a village; in fact, it was first named Altamont Community Caregivers.

“It takes a village to raise a child” is a phrase that is said to have come from an African proverb; many tribes have similar sayings. The phrase was popularized in the title of a 1996 book written by Hillary Rodham Clinton.

It also takes a village to care for the elderly or the ailing.

Although the word “community” is used often of late to describe groups of people with similar characteristics who may not know one another — as in “the gay community” or “the Jewish community” —  the sort of community that a village spawns is made up of people who may be very different as individuals but who know each other.

In the best of villages, they look out for one another.

And so here is the story told to us this week by Enterprise publisher emeritus Jim Gardner.

Jim had started working at The Altamont Enterprise as a kid at Guilderland High School. He was a printer’s devil, carrying heavy frames of lead type down the rickety stairs to the basement at 123 Maple Avenue where the giant printing press, no longer used, still rests today.

It’s covered with cobwebs now but old-timers still remember when, once a week, the street shook as the weekly edition rolled off the press. Marvin “Shorty” Vroman worked at The Enterprise for years, setting letters in hot lead on the linotype machine along with publisher Howard Ogsbury.

“Shorty was the lead typesetter,” said Jim.

The letters fell into line, each with a ping like rain on a hot tin roof.

Jim learned how to set the type, too, and can easily read upside-down and backwards. He replaced Howard at the linotype, freeing him up for editing.

Shorty and Jim became fast friends and ultimately were partners in owning The Enterprise.

In his later years, Shorty would make the early-morning runs to the printer in Amsterdam, bringing back stacks of newspapers to be delivered. Shorty’s wife, Elvena, pitched in, too.  The list of subscribers was set on the linotype, and printed on the Enterprise press now displayed at the Altamont fairgrounds.

Elvena would cut up the sheets of subscribers’ addresses and carefully put them in order for the mail routes. The printed papers would be run through the Wing Mailer piecemal with each subscriber’s address glued to a newspaper.

Before he died, Shorty asked Jim to be his executor and, most importantly, to look after his beloved wife.

Jim agreed.

Jim describes Elvena with awe in his voice, his description filled with superlatives. “She was a very classy woman, very beautiful,” he says. “She was a very accomplished artist, painting still-lifes and portraits.”

Jim goes on, “She was a realist, willing to do for others, but she was not a socialite. She was very quiet and very thoughtful.”

The Vromans lived on Sunset Drive in Altamont. “She kept a spotless home; the place was immaculate,” said Jim. “She was very particular. When she did something, she was careful, and tried to do it right the first time.”

Shorty and Elvena had no children. “They were devoted to each other,” said Jim. “They really, truly loved each other.”

After her husband died, Elvena fell. “She injured herself — not seriously but enough that she needed help. And she wanted to be at home on Sunset Drive,” Jim recalls. “I had agreed to be her caretaker … Shorty had trusted me so I needed to do what he wanted done.

“I started calling around to her friends. I called the ladies in her bridge club. I called the ladies in her church.”

Elvena belonged to the Altamont Reformed Church. But women from St. Lucy’s and St. Johns’s, also in the village, wanted to help, too.

“I was able to set up different ladies who agreed to stay overnight, one night each,” said Jim. “This went on for about three weeks with a different lady each night. Elvena was able to recover enough to be on her own again.”

Jim said this week, “Every once in a while, I look back in amazement at what I was able to do … Every single one of the women I asked responded without hesitation. These women held Elvena in the highest esteem and wanted to be helpful and stepped right up to do it, beyond what I thought could be done.”

Elvena, Jim said, was grateful. “She expressed that to each one of them,” he said.

Appreciation was the currency. Someone who had helped others was helped in return. 

“Shortly after that, Joel Edwards and his wife saw what I had done and asked about it,” said Jim.

The story continues in our news pages of the three founders of the Community Caregivers — Joel Edwards, Mary Therriault, and the late Victor Ross — meeting around a kitchen table to come up with a not-for -profit organization fueled by the energy and talents of volunteers to help people who need it.

The group’s byword is: “Neighbors helping neighbors.”

Every spring, at 123 Maple Avenue, a flowering cherry tree that was planted in Elvena’s memory blooms with a profusion of pink blossoms — the sort of scene she might have painted.

So, as we take the view that Janus had, we see the inspiring beginning of the Community Caregivers as we look back. But, as we look forward, the vision blurs.

In writing the history this week of such a worthwhile organization, we learned something troubling: Just as the need for help, especially allowing seniors to age in place, increases, the number of Community Caregivers volunteers is in sharp decline.

Over the past decade, the ranks of the volunteers have been thinned almost by half, and more than 40 percent of the current volunteers are 70 or older. More volunteers, and younger ones, are needed to carry on this valiant work.

We hope our story of the trust one friend had in his younger friend to carry on as a caregiver after he had died inspires others to do what the women who helped Elvena Vroman did. If each of us commits to giving just a bit of our time and talents, the community as a whole will benefit.

Rather than paying, in taxes, for far more expensive care in facilities, we can help many of our elderly residents to stay in our community and enrich our lives. The commitment that comes with that sort of trust can carry a community forward as one person helps another and the gift is passed forward for generations.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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