Umbrella of the Capital District is a nonprofit agency dedicated to helping senior citizens and persons with disabilities throughout the Capital District of New York State to live safely and independently in their own homes. By providing affordable home maintenance and other support services, Umbrella is helping our members keep the two things they cherish most . . . their homes and their independence.
The phone rings between 50 and 100 times a day at the Umbrella in Schenectady. Over 500 elderly or disabled members rely on the organization for help with everything from routine housecleaning and yard work to dealing with plumbing or heating emergencies. For them, Umbrella means peace of mind. As one member put it, "I regard Umbrella as the best and cheapest insurance in town. I know that in an emergency help is just a phone call away--24 hours a day-- and that the Umbrella repairperson will arrive at my home within 90 minutes.... I have often called upon Umbrella for the annoying problems other services are not willing to handle or advice on larger issues.... I plan to be a member as long as I am "aging in place".
Ron Byrne and Elaine Santore, founders and co-directors of Umbrella, started the organization 15 years ago when they realized that many seniors needed just a little routine help in order to live safely and independently in their own homes. For many, the difference between choosing to remain at home and being forced to move is having access to low-cost, trustworthy, and reliable home maintenance. For a small yearly membership fee, Umbrella provides homeowners with a safety inspection, the ability to schedule routine maintenance and home repairs, and access to a round-the-clock emergency help line.
While other organizations that provide similar services have sprung up in the past few years, Umbrella is unique because it matches homeowners in need of help with handypersons recruited in large part from the retired workforce. Retirees have skill and experience, and most are looking for ways to share what they know with others. Uniting homeowners in need of assistance with retirees who want to help has been a win-win situation earning Umbrella a prestigious Met Life/Civic Ventures Encore Award in 2009, as one of the best programs in the country for people looking to do something meaningful after retirement.
Regardless of age, Umbrella performs a background check on each prospective handyperson. "Our members belong to one of the most vulnerable segments of society. They tell us stories of having been preyed on by all kinds of unscrupulous characters. They place their trust in us and we take their welfare very seriously, says Mr. Byrne. We know each member personally, and like to think that we are giving them the same care we would give members of our own families."
Personal attention is the hallmark of Umbrella. Although most calls are for routine work, some members call with a problem. When possible, staff first helps them diagnose the need by asking questions and, if able, perform simple checks. Walking a homeowner, who asks for an electrician, through the steps needed to check a circuit breaker, is a routine that has prevented many unnecessary service calls and saved precious dollars for members on fixed incomes. It is also empowering to the homeowner.
One outcome of Umbrella's success is interest by others in replicating it. There is now an Umbrella in Colonie NY, and a Syracuse chapter has opened. As Umbrella's reputation and membership have grown, so have requests for its services. Last year it handled more than 20,000 home maintenance and repair jobs on a modest budget that supports a staff of three. A small amount of financial support from the community allows it to serve people who could not otherwise afford membership. Several businesses have teamed with Umbrella to provide volunteers on larger projects, contribute holiday food baskets, or provide care packages for seniors in desperate financial need, but there is so much need out there. "We've received a few small grants, and the publicity we got as a result of the Encore Award has been helpful," says Elaine Santore, "but we're still in need of additional financial support that will assure Umbrella's future. There is so much more that we could do."
Many organizations claim to make a difference in people's lives; Umbrella can point to a wall full of handwritten notes and thank-you letters from members and their families with messages like, "If it weren't for Umbrella, my mother would have had to leave her home years ago."