June 20, 2008
Tenacious spirit honored
Joe McIntyre/staff photographer
Alice Walker Award winner Sharon Stevans in her flower garden in her Cortland home.
Sharon Stevans couldn’t bear to see a little old lady, sick in bed, denied health insurance coverage.
As a coordinator of aging services at the Area Agency on Aging, she would do everything she could, and that meant becoming an expert in Medicare, Medicaid and all the various health insurance providers out there, to make sure her client got the coverage she needed.
“When I sat down over in the Courthouse basement when I was a young kid and went to work there, the first call that came in was someone looking for information on Medicare,” she said of her start at AAA. She didn’t know too much. “I said, ‘I have to go and get some training.’ I studied and listened at trainings and took trainings in Albany.”
She’d make home visits at elderly people’s homes who were struggling with their medical coverage.
“People are sick. You’d open a drawer and there would be hundreds of papers … ‘Does this stuff mean anything?’ the person would say. I would take it into the office and mop up and organize. It was a lot of work, but it was really rewarding.”
“It got to the point where I was doing Fair Hearings. I would do what needed to be done to get the person covered.”
It’s that can-do attitude, seen in example after example of the Cortland woman’s work, which earned her the 2008 League of Women Voters Alice A. Walker Award, given for leadership, community service and justice.
Stevans, 56, was honored at the league’s annual dinner at Tinelli’s Hathaway House in Solon last week. The award commemorates the work of Alice Walker, the deceased past president of the league.
Stevans worked at the Area Agency on Aging for a total of 23 years, serving as its director for nearly the last five, retiring in 2002. She started a family caregivers support group and worked to establish the Cortland County Coalition for Long Term Care, a group of leaders in elderly care that could work together to solve problems they face. Cindy Lewis, coordinator of the Caregivers Resource Center at AAA, nominated her for the award.
“I have known Sharon for 25 years … I nominated her because she has been — and is — an outstanding community person who, both in her professional life when she worked at the Area Agency on Aging and outside of her (work life) has made incredible contributions to the community.”
Stevans said she “was really floored” by the award.
“I was just awestruck by it.”
She knew Alice Walker and thinks of her as one of Cortland’s “Distinguished Divas” — outstanding women who have made strides in the community.
“There are so many of those women who inspire you to be better, to do better, to make the community better. Every step of the way I have had women mentor me, advise me and work with me. That night at the league dinner, Charlotte Angell got that 55-year league award. You look out and see Betty Brevett, Nancy Hansen (among others).”
She said it meant a lot to get an award by the likes of these women in the league.
Stevans said dealing with the insurance industry in the 1980s was difficult.
“Establishing Medicaid eligibility for people, that was hard. Back in those days, me and another lady in Cayuga County were the only ones who were doing health insurance counseling. We were doing it because we knew that was what people needed. Now there’s a program state wide to do that — Health Insurance Information Counseling and Assistance Program.”
And with the elderly, access was a big issue. If a senior came home from the hospital, in some cases they couldn’t leave the house without a ramp. Stevans developed a ramp program at the AAA.
“We did a few wood ramps. When the ramps were done, the wood would get chopped up for fire.”
Stevans looked into aluminum material. “We found a company in Elmira that made these aluminum components like Tinker Toys. With the help of Cortland Housing Assistance Council, we had some units made.”
The two agencies continue to work together. Once the person no longer needs the ramp, it is un-installed and set up for another person. Access to Independence and other agencies statewide model the program today.
The list goes on and on with the programs Stevans has helped initiate and oversee.
Today she’s on the board of the Seven Valley Health Coalition and used to be on its dental subcommittee. Coalition members wanted to get children to appreciate their teeth.
“The committee came up with the idea of a cartoon character that kids could identify with.”
Her husband, Michael, drew a mighty molar and her daughter, Cat, an expert in scene design, came up with a costume.
“Well who in the world will wear this,” was the next question. “I will wear it,” Stevens said. “We have a whole skit with Murray the Toothbrush, a dental hygienist and the Mighty Molar.”
She visits thousands of elementary students each year in her suit. Stevens’ husband joined her as she walked in this year’s dairy parade, an annual tradition for the Mighty Molar.
“He could not believe how the kids were going, “Mighty Molar! Mighty Molar! … They remember the message: Brush, Floss. Smile. It’s a riot. I love it.”
Stevans is a volunteer videotaper for Cable Access TV and covers Town of Cortlandville and other public meetings and events. She is on the Community Services Board, Home Care for Cortland County, and is a back up delivery person for Meals on Wheels.
“I chose to live here,” said the Redding, Mass., native. “I just love it. I think it’s a great community. I like to do things to help make it better.”
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