2023 Annual Report
It was 3 a.m. in the spring of 2020, and Betsy Simon woke up to the sound of her phone ringing.
On the other end of the line was a man who had found her flier in his senior-living high rise. He was calling to ask if Betsy knew how he and the other residents could get food. Betsy would normally call on the Baltimore City Health Department’s Division of Aging, but they were closed because of the pandemic. So, she arranged for a delivery herself.
Since 1969, Betsy has been working to organize leaders and residents around issues of health equity and social justice. In 2009, she founded the Zeta Healthy Aging Partnership (Z-HAP) with the endorsement and support of her sorority, Zeta Phi Beta. It was during Z-HAP’s expansion to the Langston Hughes Community Resource Center in West Baltimore when she first met Susan Francis, then the deputy director of Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service (MVLS). MVLS was at the center to host presentations about common legal issues.
In those early days, MVLS was just starting to expand its work with groups like Betsy’s who are often closest to and most directly involved with solving issues related to justice. Betsy’s work with older adults and MVLS’ interest in sharing legal information, especially about creating wills and advance medical directives, made the partnership between Z-HAP and MVLS a natural fit.
“MVLS has become a staple of our programming…We can trust MVLS”-Betsy Simon
In 2020, following the outbreak of COVID-19, Betsy ceased Z-HAP’s in-person meetings – but her work was far from over. Instead, she set up a conference call with her members, and together, they identified community needs and coordinated a response. That included safely distanced drop-offs of food, medicine, bandages, and more to residents across the city.
The group, now called the BDS Healthy Aging Network (short for Betsy D. Simon), had their first conference call on March 18, 2020. They haven’t missed a Wednesday since.
We spoke with Betsy about the evolution of her work, her collaboration with MVLS, and about why she thinks of MVLS as the gold standard of legal services:
Tell me about your organization:
First and foremost, I must honor and thank my husband, Deacon Henry Simon, for his support and sponsorship of every organization and community outreach initiative that I’ve founded, established or operated.
BDS Healthy Aging Partnership started in 2020 with the pandemic. On March 18, 2020, people started calling in to a conference line I’d set up. Those calls stretched on – from one hour, to an hour and a half, and so on – so we decided to do the calls once a week.
Today, BDS Healthy Aging is a network of resource partners who come together to learn about needs and share resources. We address social determinants of health while acknowledging, respecting, and treating older adults as assets, not burdens, regardless of their age, economic or health status. We primarily support older adults, caregivers, those experiencing homelessness, the blind and low vision community, and people who are experiencing other hardships.
While we started with telephone conversations, we moved to Zoom after a training by Dr. Margaret Pittman from Morgan State University. Today, this older-adults driven movement reaches hundreds of people and community partners.
How do MVLS and BDS work together?
Early on, Susan and her staff started coming [to the Langston Hughes Community Resource Center] once a month to do housing, estate planning, and other presentations about all that MVLS has to offer.
The relationship has continued throughout the years. Just last week, MVLS presented at New Psalmist Baptist Church where I have been working as a volunteer consultant. Susan has done a number of presentations about the wealth gap and how much it impacts Black older adults in particular. And we have done additional follow up about avoiding frauds and scams, and why you should do estate planning. Most of the programs that MVLS offers that impact older adults and their families have been presented to us on Zoom.
The most revolutionary thing that we’ve done together is the programming that shows people how to take practical legal steps. We’ve had partners come on [to the BDS Healthy Aging Network meeting] to give information and a handout. Sometimes it’s a great program but people don’t understand how to act on it. So MVLS agreed to do monthly presentations (every second Wednesday from 3:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.) that show people how to get your tax credit, get information about your utilities, and other practical legal applications. MVLS has become a staple of our programming.
Why are legal issues important to BDS members?
The benefits are overwhelming, even those we don’t understand. It’s not always known how important legal issues are to ensuring that there is health equity and social justice. Many times, people don’t know what rights we actually have, what we need to do to stay well, how we can be proactive about issues like housing stability or criminal record expungement or estate planning.
How does BDS benefit from your work with MVLS?
MVLS brings the issues to us. We can trust MVLS. We can ask stupid questions that a regular attorney might dismiss, especially as older adults and underserved populations.
Having legal services available on a regular basis with no cost is an enormous benefit.
We see MVLS as the gold standard among law services, profit or nonprofit, and I think it’s the culture that Susan has created under her leadership that MVLS is easy to reach out to. As far as I know, no one is turned away without an answer.
How does MVLS benefit from its work with the BDS Network?
It’s a two-way street. We know if anything comes up, MVLS will help connect people to assistance. And MVLS asks for suggestions. I hope MVLS has benefitted from candid conversations. Our members will speak the truth of what they believe, and MVLS will listen. Their philosophy is one of respect for older adults and the Black community.
One of MVLS’ core values is its commitment to dismantling racial and economic injustice. Why is that important?
There are certain things within the system that over time I realized are embedded. Personally, I’ve witnessed [racial injustice]. Unfortunately, like many families I’ve had family members who had to enter the court system. I’ve served on jury panels and had the opportunity to sit in the courtroom. You see how different people are treated when they approach the bench or stand up for service. Even when you put in a judge, prosecutor or someone who may feel differently, they quickly move into the culture without even thinking or knowing about it, and they don’t address the bias they see in front of them.
It’s important that MVLS address it, because they have the wherewithal to speak on the subject.
When you see injustice, you can either sit there, or you can speak out and do something. From where I sit, MVLS and others like it do something.
BDS is a powerful network of older adults. Share more about your core belief that older adults are key assets to their communities.
Older adults have history. They are in a position to, and still do, run this country. Look at the people making contributions – nurses, doctors, health educators, staff who are required to go to work, people at churches!
We are often on Zoom with people who are talking about what “seniors” need, and those same people look like they are 65 or older. So, we know they are running the country and our agencies, but because we don’t acknowledge they are there and contributing, we miss out.
That’s what I want to get across. We contribute! Older adults are assets, not burdens to the system.
I see the work we’re doing with MVLS as helping us advocate for ourselves. It’s like the saying about fishing. I see the training and advocacy we’re doing with MVLS as key to independence.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity
Betsy Dinkins Simon, M.S., CHES is a nationally certified health education specialist and the Founding Director and CEO of Betsy D. Simon Enterprises© (1969); Z-HAP (2009) and subsequent Founder and President of the BDS Healthy Aging Networks, Inc. For decades she has designed and implemented needs-based programs and interventions for underserved populations across the nation. Prior to her current full time volunteer position, Betsy held positions as professor and administrator, Coppin State University; city-wide Health Education administrator, Baltimore City Schools; project manager and co-investigator, Friends Research Institute, Inc.; and more. Betsy was a Mayor and City Council appointee to the Commission on Aging (2013 – 2020) and represented the Commission on the City Interagency Committee on Aging. She continues as consultant/advisor to agencies and school. community & faith-based organizations.
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