When Sheila Casey was hired as the director of Senior Services for La Plata County in 1999, there were only two employees working to provide support and assistance to seniors and caregivers living here. Casey had only one goal: “Make this little piece of heaven accessible for all older adults.”
She came to Durango in 1990 and raised three children here. She worked as the homeless education director and lead teacher at the Durango Adult Education Center from 1993 to 1997.
There, she taught family education, life skills, stress management, job skills and GED classes to adults with special needs in classrooms, jails, safe houses and homeless shelters. She also secured more than $30,000 each year to fund the organization’s homeless and family education programs.
Her experience with adult education programs stems from her work in the 1980s as the community education director at Central Oregon Community College in Bend, where she collaborated with other colleges and universities to expand the availability of their educational programs to 4,000 individuals interested in continuing education.
“I was working with the college to provide lifelong learning opportunities to older adults,” Casey said. “That was a wonderful precursor to building these programs, too. I really got a lot of joy out of developing programs that would help them thrive.”
Casey grew up with seven siblings in Des Moines. She was an advocate for others from a young age, because her youngest brother has special needs. Helping others was rewarding, so she tried to continue on the path of service.
During her time at La Plata Senior Services, the center grew exponentially. By the time she retired, Casey managed 35 staff members and more than 200 volunteers that included instructors, bus drivers, home-chore workers and more. She said each staff member and volunteer is committed to serving older adults.
Casey expanded the Meals on Wheels, which serves meals to more than 1,200 seniors in Durango, Bayfield and Ignacio. She also created Home Chore Services, which provides seniors with assistance for tasks like errands and housework. And now, volunteers perform around 13,000 hours of these chore services each year.
She also made herself available to families with questions about caregiving. She helped educate many people about resources available in the community, as well. She enjoyed communicating the importance of programs that allow older adults to live at home longer.
“When you work with other organizations, you really strengthen the whole community,” she said. “I wanted to participate in building a healthier community. So I got very involved, not only with the community, but at the state level.”
Casey gave a voice to seniors on the Western Slope by serving on the Colorado Commission on Aging for eight years and Colorado’s AARP Executive Council for five years. She currently sits on the board for the local Community Health Action Coalition. She said these experiences were opportunities to learn more about the varied issues faced by different communities.
“The rural needs of seniors and older adults are very different than metropolitan needs,” Casey said. “We were able to provide legislative advocacy for Southwest Colorado.”
Under her leadership, La Plata Senior Services received the El Pomar Award for Excellence and the National Association of Human Services Innovation Award. Casey said those awards are some of her greatest honors. In 2018, she was named the La Plata County Health Hero by the Community Health Action Coalition.
Casey recently retired, but still plans to work three days a week at her own consulting business. There, she will provide counseling services to caregivers and older adults and help residents navigate regional resources. She’ll also return to La Plata Senior Services to offer Medicare counseling, to visit with her friends and to volunteer.