FITCHBURG — Irene Hernandez is in the business of helping people, and business is good.
She is the director of Active Life, and adult day care and health facility that celebrated its opening in a ceremony at 783 Water St. on Aug. 16.
Last Thursday’s ribbon-cutting was formality for a business that gained traction from its April unlocking, “and well before that,” according to Hernandez, the facility’s director. The business has 62 members.
“I always secretly wished for a place like this for people to go (and) we saw that a large population was under-served and isolated.” said Hernandez, a Gardner resident whose professional background and native roots made her the the owner’s first choice as director.
That was the impetus for her conception and the motivation for starting the process. Some early investors helped start-up funding that included a complete refurbishing of the space, which they enlarged by removing a partition that had divided the area into two smaller, long abandoned markets.
The 5,000-square-foot central room, and its dozen attached alcoves, is a daytime home for local adults to find comfort, security and connections. The 12 full-time staff members, myriad contractors and volunteers provide far more than physical well-being; they provide an atmosphere of welcome.
“I was living at home alone, my family is far away,” said Jose Mercado through an interpreter. “Then when I saw it, I wanted to be here,” the 64-year-old said. “I feel better here than I do at home. Not even my own family ever cared for me like this.”
Participant Rosalyn Calvit agrees.
“I like the activities and I have lots of friends here. I can’t wait to come here every day,” she said. “And I really like the food, too.”
The two daily meals, breakfast and lunch, and afternoon snacks are provided by outside vendors and are designed by professional nutritionists under the advice of doctors.
“Every participant needs to have a physician’s summary before they are allowed into the program,” said Hernandez. “Although we do let them come while the insurance approval is pending.”
Even the daily arrival is part of the program. Three, 14-passenger vans drive throughout five towns picking up members in the morning and returning them home in the afternoon.
“We try to keep the commute to within a 15-mile radius: Fitchburg, Leominster, Gardner, Templeton and Townsend.”
“There are people here from at least 10 different countries,” said Hernandez. A row of flags hangs along the eastern edge of the great room, which resembles an international welcome mat. “We currently have only about 60 participants but we have the capacity for 180,” she said.
“We are growing slowly so we can keep the staff-to-member ratio at an ideal level. Lots of requests are in but we need to wait for physician’s summaries.”
Behind the many solid doors along the perimeter are more features and treasures. A Memory Support Room facilitates unique therapies for clients with dementia and early onset Alzheimer’s disease.
A reading room stocked with donations from Fitchburg Public Library has now become a shared space with scores of donated yarns and materials and sewing gear, where many participants hem, repair and construct their own clothes.
“The Fitchburg community has been great. Everyone just wants to give,” said Hernandez. “We also take them out on day trips a few times per week; shopping, parks and things like that.”
“There is a lot of affection between participants and among the staff. We even have a ‘house-mother’ who gives daily hugs to everyone who wants one,” Hernandez said of 89-year-old Anna Sofia Tuero. “You can feel the love even across language barriers.”
Along with increasing membership, Hernandez sees in the center’s future longer hours and even weekend options due to demand. “I feel sad when I have to leave at the end of the day,” said Mercado.