When Cheryl Poppe took the top office at the Chelsea Soldiers Home on a temporary basis last April, and then permanently last September, people kept calling her ‘Commandant.’
After all, that was and had been the proper title for the leader of the long-time veterans home.
However, it didn’t sit right with Poppe.
It just didn’t fit her and what she believed her mission to be at the Home.
So she changed it.
Now, everyone just calls her the superintendent.
But a title change won’t be the last thing she changes at the revered, 133-year-old, facility on the hill. She’s looking for a cultural change, an analysis of the current services and an eye to the future of veterans services – while at the same time reinvigorating the image of the home in the communities of Chelsea, Charlestown, Everett and Revere.
“I am trying to re-integrate the Soldiers Home of Chelsea as a leading facility and a community leader,” she said in a recent interview.
Poppe came to the job last year at the direction of then-Veterans Secretary Coleman Nee. She had been in the ROTC at University of Rhode Island – and had grown up in Rhode Island in a decidedly military family. She was commissioned to the Massachusetts Army National Guard after graduation and served there for 30 years, rising to the rank of colonel. She retired in 2008 from the Guard and began working to help reintegrate soldiers into the community, a position that transferred seamlessly into a job at the state’s Department of Veterans Services.
She became the chief of staff there and a deputy secretary, and received her mission from Nee just last year.
Within that mission, Poppe inherited a proud community institution that had fallen on hard times. Not only within its aging infrastructure, but also within the communities that had for so long supported the home – communities that had kind of forgotten about the home as it had all-but-stopped in its outreach and participation at local events.
In all ways, including within the State Budget, the Chelsea Soldiers Home was at a crossroads.
Now, however, Poppe said she can see a very bright light at the end of the tunnel that will come into much better focus once a commissioned report is made public later this winter. The report, prepared by the Long-Term Care Commission established in the Valor Act, will lead the way for the state on how it creates and funds services at places like the Solider Home in Chelsea. With an eye to the future, the report is expected to create a map that Poppe and other Veterans Services leaders will be able to follow to help meet the changing needs of veterans – young, old, male and female – in the future.
Poppe said she can see the Chelsea home focusing on things like adult day care, assisted living and bringing in more families.
“This report will help us define what kind of services we are going to need and what kind of facilities are they going to need,” said Poppe. “I believe the needs are going to be more of a reliance on adult day care, assisted living and living space for families. We have only single vets here and no families. There is a whole variety of services that will be of need here and that we’ll be able to offer.”
A focus, also, she believes, will be on increasing services for women. Women, in large part, have not been included in the Soldiers Home repertoire over the years, with most people always referring to “the guys” up at the Soldiers Home. Poppe said that will, and must, change over time.
“One of the things I would like to do is expand our services for women in our long-term care,” she said. “Women veterans are the fastest growing population. They represent 7.5 percent of the veteran population and 20 percent of all recruits. Now that the military has opened up some combat positions, women will likely make up an even larger population of the veterans. We need to adapt our service to meet these needs.”
Part of the effort will also be reaching out to communities and local resources to help veterans, if they chose, get back into the community. Poppe said the stress is on outreach at the Soldiers Home right now and collaborating with local Veterans Agents and community organizations. She said they have been working with legal services agencies, the Veterans Administration, CAPIC, Chelsea’s City Navigators, UMass-Boston, North Suffolk Mental Health, Mass General, East Boston Neighborhood Health Center and a host of other groups. The hope is that soldiers who wish to reintegrate into the community can do so with help provided by the Soldiers Home and its partners.
“One goal I see is expanding programming to our veterans here, but also to get the veterans back out in the community if they want to do that,” she said. “One thing I’m impressed with in Chelsea and the communities around us – including Revere, Everett, East Boston, Charlestown – is that these communities are working really well around Veterans Services…The concern has been this is where you come and this is where you stay for life. There ought to be more to it than that. I think we really need to help our veterans who want to live and can live in the community to get back to the community. We need to help them do that by meeting their challenges with things like legal services, therapy and teaching them how to be in the world post service. We really want to try to navigate the veterans to the services that can help them. Of course, a lot of that is when you build community and collaborate, you have to reach out. We look forward to working with the community groups as much as possible.”
For those who want to call the Soldiers Home their home, Poppe said they have already started some unique programs in concert with local community groups – including the Boy Scouts, Girls Scouts and even music programs via students at Berklee School of Music.
“The power of such things was really on display when we had that group caroling on Dec. 23,” said Poppe. “I can’t tell you how powerful it was to see some of the vets who were sitting quietly and then started singing along to ‘Hark the Herald Angels.’ It was powerful, and these are the things that happen and can happen here all the time.”
Poppe said one of the music therapy classes for residents is on track to start a Soldiers Home band – a first for the facility.
Additionally, the old auditorium that was slated to become office space, has now been returned to the residents as an auditorium instead.
Poppe said the residents wanted a place to hold meetings, to watch movies and to gather. So, instead of following the plan to make the historic auditorium into offices, she put some money into refurbishing it and getting new chairs and a modern projector.
Residents were even able to gather there to watch the New England Patriots march to the Super Bowl.
“We decided that it just couldn’t be office space,” said Poppe. “That auditorium is for the residents and the veterans and returning it to them has worked well.”
The subject of the auditorium brings up the subject of the aging buildings that dot the campus of the Soldiers Home. Most were built in either 1882 or 1890 and their age shows.
Poppe pointed out that some improvements have been made, including a new cafeteria and kitchen area, new fire safety sprinklers, and a life safety improvement program also – not to mention some efficiency projects like new windows and roof-top solar panels.
However, there is much more to do, and what gets done and how it will get done largely depends on what the Commission decides in its upcoming report.
“It’s an aging infrastructure,” she said. “The buildings are solid, but the infrastructure needs to be updated…Right now, I just feel very fortunate we have so many veterans organizations and community groups that want to and that come out to help us. That’s something we can really build on.”