Celebrating older adults in New England: New ‘Champions’ program helps show that age is just a number

People are capable of amazing things, no matter their age. Case in point: six older adults were recently honored as New England UnitedHealthcare Champions™ for their incredible efforts to serve their communities.

Whether it’s helping their neighbors get the care they need or helping run a local food pantry, the work and impact of these Champions will continue for years to come. To recognize their extraordinary achievements, UnitedHealthcare made donations to local charities in each of their names and honored each of them at a recent event in Boston.

“Too often we as a society think of retirement age as the end game. I think of it as the beginning of something new – new opportunities to contribute to our neighbors and communities, friendships, growing families and grandchildren, and much more,” said Mary Snyder, CEO, UnitedHealthcare Medicare & Retirement of New England. “At UnitedHealthcare, we launched our new Champions program to start to shift that perception, and we couldn’t be more honored to celebrate our six Champions.”

Here are their stories:

Gayle Hays (Bailey Island, Maine)

As the COVID-19 vaccines first became available in Maine, Gayle volunteered to administer the vaccine to those who were eligible at a location sponsored by Mid-Coast Hospital, where she had worked for more than 20 years. Gayle became concerned that many older adults in the community could not access computers or had limited technology skills and would have difficulty registering for the vaccine at the correct location. She immediately launched an effort to provide information to community members on how to sign up for the vaccine and where to get them. Thanks to Gayle's efforts, and the program she created, numerous members of her community received their first COVID-19 vaccination.

“It is an honor to be a UnitedHealthcare Champion knowing that as an older adult, I am still a productive member of our society and still have the capability, as many older people do, to volunteer in arenas to support others,” said Gayle Hays. “Helping others to stay active and engaged to maintain body and mind as well as combat isolation that can lead to health issues is one of my passions.”

Patricia Vampatella (New Gloucester, Maine)

Patricia is a strong advocate for older adults. Since resuming board chair duties at SeniorsPlus, she has completely reorganized and rewritten the board manual, overseen the strategic planning process, rebuilt the board recruitment process and instituted board education and enrichment as a key activity at each board meeting. She is enthusiastic and generous in her work as an ambassador for SeniorsPlus and its programs.

Mary Ellen Davis Rock (Jaffrey, New Hampshire)

Mary Ellen was a social worker for many years prior to her retirement. And for the past five years, Mary Ellen has devoted her time to help run the Saint Joseph Hospital Employee Food Pantry. The pantry is unique as it is an organizational program designed to help 1,500+ employees, volunteers and Saint Joseph School of Nursing students. Mary Ellen works to make sure each person who walks through the door feels like they are family. Her warm and loving spirit is evident to every person she meets.

Dianne Davis (Hamden, Connecticut)

 After retiring from the Yale Adler Geriatric Assessment Center where she served as geriatric case manager, Dianne's work in the field continues. She is committed to outreach in diverse populations about the signs of Alzheimer's and the resources available. She focuses on sharing the Alzheimer's Association’s “10 ways to love your brain,” in the hopes of improving the health of everyone she meets, including those in underserved communities. At least once a week she visits churches, community and senior centers to provide education about diet, exercise and the importance of diversity in clinical trials.

Cy O’Neill (Pawtucket, Rhode Island)

Cy skillfully and tirelessly led the development of the first Village in Rhode Island (the Providence Village) — a community of mutual support to fundamentally enhance and change the experience of growing older. The Village includes members and volunteers, who help one another with things like rides to appointments, household chores, snow removal and more. Cy continues to collaborate with others to start additional Villages within Rhode Island.

Paul Willenbrock (Beverly, Massachusetts)

Inspired by his daughter, who has intellectual disabilities and autism, Paul helped pass monumental legislation to prevent abuse of those with intellectual and developmental disabilities through his dedicated advocacy at the Massachusetts State House. He provided testimony and walked the halls of the State House speaking about the need to protect individuals who cannot protect themselves. Paul worked with his state senator and representative to cultivate champions who, in turn, helped make sure this bill became law.

“It was wonderful being recognized by UnitedHealthcare as a Champion for the work I am doing during my years as a senior citizen that benefits the community,” said Paul Willenbrock. “My volunteer activity focuses on advocating for laws and services which increase safety and enjoyment of life for people living with a developmental disability.”

Nominees were not required to be UnitedHealthcare members. The event itself took place at Gillette Stadium where the Champions were honored by the Selection Committee, which included Heisman Trophy winner and former NFL star Doug Flutie and AARP Foundation President Lisa Marsh-Ryerson.

For more information about the UnitedHealthcare Champions program, visit uhcchampions.com.

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