GREENFIELD – Ever since she was a child, Linda Hart has gravitated toward older folks.
Her family moved a lot, and everywhere they settled, it seemed like Hart ended up at the feet of some older lady or another, listening raptly to her wisdom.
She turned that childhood enthusiasm for seniors into a decades-long career with the county’s senior services agency, but now, she says it’s time for someone else to take the reins.
After 25 years of dedication to Hancock County Senior Services, executive director Linda Hart plans to retire this year. The organization’s board of directors has begun the search for her successor and hopes to have someone hired by October, though Hart will be hard to replace, said committee chair Bill Buck. Hart has served as the agency’s director since 2001, and peers say her leadership and dedication have made major contributions to the health and well-being of senior citizens in Hancock County.
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Hart began working with Senior Services — which provides handyman service, transportation, respite care and more — as a part-time volunteer coordinator in 1992 after years of staying at home with her children. She started working with the organization serving the county’s seniors two years after moving to the area with her husband and children from Michigan.
Hart always has been drawn to those with generations more life experience than she has, she said.
“Even now, I’m surprised at the wisdom older people have,” she said. “They’re walking history.”
Under her guidance, the organization expanded its senior transportation program, Hancock Area Rural Transit, into a public transit system, offering rides to people of any age in Hancock County. During that transition, trips taken by people utilizing the program increased from 8,000 to nearly 22,000 per year, Hart said.
And the organization’s home base itself expanded, moving from within the Hancock County Community Foundation at 312 E. Main St. to its own facility at 1870 Fields Blvd., a headquarters complete with a garage for the transit program’s 12-vehicle fleet.
Hart said the community foundation served as an incubator for the organization, which was first established in 1978, helping it grow throughout the decade it was housed there.
Community foundation president Mary Gibble said it has been incredible to watch Senior Services grow through the years.
“For Linda to have the foresight and tenacity to take it from what it was to what it has become speaks volumes about her leadership skills and her ability to weather the storms that come with that kind of growth,” Gibble said. “I’m blown away by the impact Senior Services has made and the footprint they have left on the community.”
Gibble added that she looks to Hart as a mentor, friend and an example of an ideal nonprofit leader.
Hart defers credit for the accomplishments to her staff members and 13-member board of directors. She counts herself lucky to have worked with staff members who are kind and caring in a world that can be the opposite, she said.
“I didn’t do anything by myself,” she said. “All I had to do was take people by the hand and lead them forward.”
Despite her modesty, those who have worked with her through the years say her leadership has been invaluable to the community.
“I’ve always been impressed by her ability to make change when she sees a need,” said Paula Jarrett, director of United Way of Central Indiana – Area East. “She and her board have always been careful not to grow too quickly, but they have always been out front in seeing what the community needs and been willing to provide leadership to changes that are necessary.”
Jarrett said the county’s seniors have benefited in a number of ways from Hart’s and Senior Service’s attention, including their responses to issues related to transportation, senior hunger, isolation and well-being. Studies show isolation can be as deadly to seniors as cancer or heart disease, Jarrett said, and she believes the agency and its transportation program provide a critical link for local seniors and their communities.
“Without senior services, our seniors would not be as healthy as they are,” she said. “They’re very concerned with making sure our most vulnerable seniors are getting their needs met, not getting taken advantage of, not languishing alone and are getting where they need to go.”
Hart is glad to be able to stay on and train the person hired to fill her shoes, she said — it’s a luxury she has been provided to be able to guide the process, and she feels it’s too important to the people the agency serves for her to rush out the door.
She looks forward to being able to visit more often with her two grandchildren and plans to stay busy with gardening and volunteering opportunities.
“I want to spend time with them while they’re still young and care about time with Grandma,” she said, laughing. “But I’m not ready to go home and sit in my rocking chair.”