Hundreds Stand Opposed to Pending Closure of Polk Center

| September 3, 2019

FRANKLIN, Pa. (EYT) – It was a sea of red shirts, showing support for Polk State Center, outside the Venango County Courthouse on Monday morning.

The rally in support of Polk Center opened up with a prayer and the pledge of allegiance before the main speakers were introduced.

Venango County Commissioner Albert “Chip” Abramovic acted as master of ceremonies for the event, taking the first turn at the microphone before introducing the other speakers.

“Today we stand united. Today we stand as one. Today we stand unified. We stand unified for those families and those loved ones who are at Polk Center, those individuals who don’t have a voice, those individuals who you care for, those individuals that are part of our community,” Abramovic said.

“No one else can speak for them, but we can. We can be that one voice together, that one voice to lead a charge to save their home. That one voice, unified together, to make an impact for those individuals that can’t be heard and aren’t listened to.”

The first of the keynote speakers was State Senator Scott Hutchinson, who has been a major opponent of the pending closure since the announcement.

“I stand along with each and every one of you to say Polk Center is the home 200 fragile, vulnerable people,” Hutchinson said.

“They deserve our utmost love and assistance. They deserve to stay in safe, secure, and familiar surroundings, served by caring professionals who each and every day go the extra mile in helping to provide quality lives, and they deserve to have their choice honored rather than forcing them into a choice by taking away their current home.”

Senator Hutchinson went on to noted that Polk Center is not only integrated with the local community but has also served as a place of safety and refuge for the residents while allowing them opportunities for social interaction, employment, enrichment, and personal growth.

“The residents’ families agree with this assessment, which is why they maintain their decision of living at Polk even when other opportunities exist,” he noted.

“I think this short-sighted decision seems to be driven by a utopian viewpoint that does not match the real world.”

Franklin Area Chamber of Commerce Director Jodi Lewis was the second speaker, and while she was there to offer the support of the Chamber, she also noted that the economic concerns are not the primary concerns right now.

“In less than two weeks, I have gotten to know some of the best people in this county and that is the staff at Polk,” Lewis said.

“As the Chamber director, my immediate concern was the loss of jobs and it immediately changed to the loss of homes. I will tell you that this staff is not the least bit concerned about their jobs. They’re concerned about the people that they take care of and what will happen to them if those doors are shut.”

Jim Miller, president of Polk Borough Council and owner of the Main Street Market in Polk, took the podium next.

“These people need you. You are their family. We are their family,” Miller said.

“The borough and Polk Center are so intertwined, I don’t know how we’re going to be able to separate them. It’s been there for over 100 years, and we’ve always been one. Now the governor says, we’re going to change that. I’ve got news for him: we’re going to fight this.”

According to Miller, the concern certainly isn’t for the economics of the situation.

“Is Polk Borough going to survive? Yes. Is my business going to survive? I hope so. Is the county going to survive? Yes. But, there’s almost 200 people up there that I doubt will survive without you.”

The next speaker, State Representative Lee James, echoed that sentiment.

“The Department of Human Services says life in a community group home is better for people with developmental disabilities, and really for all. That’s their position. That’s not our position,” James noted.

“Studies from way back to the 1994 era found an increase in mortality in group homes and in fact, during a roundtable discussion about ten days ago, one of the representatives from DHS admitted that six people died in the process of closing Hamburg. I don’t know what more they need to prove the point, but I’m sure those people were stressed beyond belief.”

James went on to talk about the opportunities offered for residents at Polk State Center, from employment to community interaction, and also raised several points about other opportunities to utilize more of the enormous campus.

“Since there haven’t been many admissions for over a quarter of a century, naturally the cost per resident has gone up, so that’s an empty argument,” James said.

“There are thousands of people, we are told every year at appropriations, so why in the world would you close Polk Center if that’s true. We need to stop wringing our hands and saying ‘what are we going to do?’ Let’s do three things. Number one, let’s reexamine the mission of Polk Center.”

“Let’s take care of the folks that are there, but let’s also look for persons who are homeless, senior citizen care, things in that nature. Let’s design a new look. Let’s take a look at that prison system and look at senior inmates, folks who are very close to their terms of incarceration, things of that nature. And finally, consider a treatment facility possibly for homeless veterans, and maybe especially those suffering from PTSD.”

Representative James was followed by Dr. Raymond Feroz, of Clarion University, who is the Chairman of the Mental Health Board for Venango County, and also a former Polk Center employee.

“In a world where transparency and collaboration and teamwork are highly valued, what did the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services do? Announce they’d be closing Polk Center with no consultation with the individuals who live there, their families, the board of trustees, our legislators, our commissioners. This was not an oversight. They truly believe this is the best way to go: by ambush,” Feroz said.

“Never mind that Polk has been around for 122 years and the Secretary of the Department of Human Services, coming here from out of state, has been in her job in Harrisburg for one year. Never mind that individuals at Polk Center have spent their lives there and consider it their home. Never mind the families that have been assured that after 122 years that nothing would happen to their loved ones without family consent. Never mind that Polk Center employees have deep roots in Venango County and other surrounding counties and are a vital part of our workforce. Never mind that the loss of these jobs will have a devastating effect, not just on the employees and their families, but also on the local school districts, municipalities, retailers, restaurants, and so on.”

According to Feroz, one of the major problems is the community is already at full capacity in terms of service being provided by community group home providers.

“When I visit group homes, often someone is working overtime because the agency can’t fill openings to hire qualified staff,” he noted.

He went on to note that the level of expertise for working with difficult clients is not the same at community group homes as it is at centers like Polk.

“Tell me how these individuals will be better served when the municipal and state police are called to deal with their behavior instead of well-trained, empathetic professional staff?”

Representative Glenn “G.T.” Thompson was the next to take the podium.

“I can’t think of a more fitting place to be on Labor Day, quite frankly, than to be here working for the vulnerable,” Thompson said.

“I saw and I remember what happened in the 70s when the elite decided that people should be pushed out of their homes and into the community. You know where a lot of those folks wound up? They wound up on the streets and from the streets, they ended up in our prisons.”

Thompson said he believes that this decision was based on seeing the residents of Polk as numbers, rather than as individuals, and commended those in the crowd carrying signs with initials of the individuals they attended to represent.

“It makes no sense to lay off a compassionate, caring, qualified workforce that is getting the job done today, only to ship people into the community, where there may not be the staffing.”

“We need to keep history from repeating itself. We know what happens when you close facilities like this.”

Mr. Nowicki, a man whose brother has resided at Polk Center for 66 years, was the next to speak.

“Governor Wolf, I’m making a plea to you,” Nowicki said, noting that his brother has the aptitude of a one-year-old and cannot even hold a fork to feed himself.

“Where do you want to transition him to, because that seems to be the best word, ‘transition.’ If you take a senior, your mother, who’s 80 years old, but she still has her faculties, but just can’t get around the house good anymore, and you stick her into what they call a good nursing home, you think that’s not going to be hard? So, what do you think it’s going to be for him?”

Nowicki, who also shared a photo of his brother, went on to invite Governor Wolf to come to Polk Center to see the facility, the residents, and the employees there for himself.

“Please, do the right thing by my brother, all the other people there, the townspeople, and everything. This is more than numbers. These are actual people.”

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