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Kern, familiar face at MASS, to retire

Posted: Tuesday, Dec 4th, 2012

Mendota Area Senior Services director, Carol Kern, will be honored at a retirement open house on Sunday, Dec. 9 from 1-4 p.m. at the Mendota Civic Center. The public is invited to congratulate Kern on her years of service at MASS. (Reporter photo by Bonnie Morris)

MENDOTA - A familiar face at Mendota Area Senior Services (MASS) will be missing soon. After serving as the director of MASS for the past 28 years, Carol Kern will retire this month.

Kern, who was born and raised in Shabbona, has guided MASS through many ups and downs during her nearly three-decade tenure. "When I started I was full time, there was a part-time information and assistance staff person, and a driver with a station wagon and we covered Mendota," she chuckled. "Since then, we've grown to include outreach and became a community focal point for LaSalle County, stretching out to 10 townships that we now cover with all our services."

The staff has also increased since 1985 and currently includes two full-time and seven part-time employees, four of whom are drivers. But that did not happen overnight. Kern said for the first three or four years, there was not much change at MASS but then, new government requirements were put in place. "You either had to enlarge or get lost in the shuffle," she recalled.

Until that time, numerous small agencies such as MASS were providing the same services. Kern said the government decided it would be better to consolidate those services so they created the "Community Focal Point" process. "There is one Community Focal Point per county but because of the size of LaSalle County, we have two," she noted. "MASS is one of them."

Looking back, Kern believes the biggest change at MASS has been in transportation, which was also the original concept for the senior service program when it began in 1978. "The city gave MASS a station wagon at that time and that's how it got started," Kern said of its grassroots beginning. "It was just transportation for awhile."

The big change came when MASS began applying for IDOT vehicles. "That was mainly because of the areas we needed to cover," Kern said.

As for the future of transportation in LaSalle County, Kern said she has attended meetings for the past five years to help set up countywide transportation. Although this will be a dramatic change for county residents, Kern said there are "glitches" and government red tape that has hampered implementation of the program.

Once countywide transportation is established, the City of Ottawa will be the administrative source and they will transport all ages, not just the elderly or disabled. Kern said nearby counties such as Bureau/Putnam, Lee/Ogle, and the Voluntary Action Center of DeKalb already have the service in place. "They're talking about the increases in numbers. They transport back and forth to Kishwaukee and Northern and it's really going well," Kern said. "But not in LaSalle County. It's been a slow process from day one and it's just bureaucracy.

"I always said I didn't think I'd live long enough to see it happen," Kern added with a laugh, "and I'm beginning to think that might be the case."

In addition to transportation, MASS provides assistance to help seniors understand government programs such as Medicare D. Kern said Medicare D, in particular, benefited MASS in some ways. Although it was a great deal of work, it also made many more people aware of their services. "People came in who had never used our services before," she said. "It created a different view of MASS - it's for everybody, not just low income people."

Kern said her work at MASS has been extremely rewarding but there have been plenty of bumps in the road. "This job requires good bookkeeping skills and a lot of patience - a lot," she noted. "All the government paperwork - some of those hassles are not so much fun. It can be extremely frustrating."

And yet, Kern said knowing she is helping people and seeing the look of relief on their faces when they leave her office is the best reward. "I always say I've loved every moment of my job but there were a few moments I didn't love," she laughed. "But this has been my life for 28 years and it's going to be really hard to walk away."

But do not be surprised to see Kern at MASS from time to time. "I will come back and volunteer - I know how valuable volunteers are," she said.

For the first couple months of retirement, though, Kern has another plan. "I'm going to read a book and watch it snow," she said chuckling. "Nobody wants to hear that because they don't want snow. I don't care. I want enough snow that I can stay in and know I don't have to go out in it."

Kern said she has been fortunate to have the support of her husband, Roger, for the past 35 years. In addition, she looks forward to spending time with her family, which includes three daughters, nine grandchildren and one great-grandson. "I don't like to do housework and I don't like to cook so I have to find something else to do," she laughed. "I like to read and garden - I'm sure I will find something to do."

Kern said she feels blessed to have had a job she loved for so many years. "It's been a really rewarding experience - I wouldn't change it for the world," she said, adding with a laugh, "I've worked since I was 15, so I don't know if I can be retired or not but I'm going to give it a shot. It's time."

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