Barbara Flynn Leaves; Office Closes

Caseworker Retires; State May Close Welfare Office

By MANDY LOCKE

Barbara Flynn leans closer - peering over her calico-framed glasses - and gives cat, Two-Face, another stroke before whispering, "I don't know what they're going to do."

Only the large desk cluttered with stacks of papers, a computer and a ringing telephone reminds the listener that this slight lady is anything other than a lifelong friend, that this office is anything other than a comfy living room.

In fact, this is the local office of the state Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA), and Ms. Flynn is a veteran caseworker who has served the Island for 26 years. "They" are the 112 Vineyarders receiving government aid whose struggles just became greater amid news of the potential closing of the Island's only welfare office.

The state budget shortfall left the department with an $8 million gap, part of which was closed by making the decision in February to lay off 160 employees. One pink slip had Barbara Flynn's name on it, putting the future of the Island's DTA office in question.

"The clients want to know what they are supposed to do. I'm the answer lady, but this one . . . this one I can't answer," Ms. Flynn says, looking away.

The Vineyard's DTA office is the smallest in the state. Central administrators are currently reviewing operations and will likely either close the office - which would force clients to travel to an office in Falmouth or Hyannis - or assign another caseworker to part-time duty on-Island. Replacing Ms. Flynn with another full-time caseworker seems unlikely, given the current hiring freeze.

Although the DTA rescinded Ms. Flynn's layoff last Thursday, she had already opted to accept a retirement package, effective March 15. She says this decision was forced by the layoff - if she were to stay, only to learn the office will be closed, her job could be relocated off-Island.

One might think an early retirement package would be a gift for this 69-year-old, but Barbara Flynn is not your typical grandmother. She somehow defies age, only bright white hair giving away her almost seven decades.

Ms. Flynn just returned from the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, where, at the urgings of her daughter Karen, she waited in the Utah cold to hear the Dave Matthews Band play after a speed-skating medal ceremony.

She is also a summertime fixture in Menemsha, serving up quahaug chowder alongside her daughters at the Bite.

And she's not ready to close this chapter of her life.

"I'll get in my car on March 18 and probably drive to work. My car knows the way," she says with a laugh that ends abruptly. "I'll probably walk out the door on March 15 and cry."

For 26 years, Ms. Flynn met thousands of Islanders during their lowest moments. She developed plenty of tricks to help her clients curb their anxiety, and adopted a neighborhood stray cat - Two-Face - to help the sterile office seem more like home.

"Of course, it's a homey place. Here, you are not a number," Ms. Flynn says, as Two-Face jumps back into her lap.

And she's never without a kind word for those who wander into her office. "I tell them not to worry, just to be patient," she says.

When Ms. Flynn encourages her clients, she does so with the assurance of someone who's seen hard times. "I'm a single mom," she says. "I've been in situations where I'm broke and down and out - I always put myself in their shoes.

"I've been here a long time and I've seen a lot of people come and go," she adds. "I've seen a lot of the very poor give up and move off the Island" - a reality she fears will return if the office closes its doors for good.

"On the other hand, I know a lot of former clients who now own their own business and are very successful," she says.

Ms. Flynn fears such happy endings will all but disappear. "I don't think [clients] will take advantage of other options," she says, shaking her head. "I think they'll just suffer.

"It's hard to make it here on this Island. Dukes County is one of the poorest counties in the state," she adds, laughing about how people she meets while traveling never understand how she can work at a welfare office on Martha's Vineyard.

Her clients, who are mostly single parents, walk, bike and bus to the DTA office on Douglas Way. Ms. Flynn says she can't understand how they would make it off-Island to receive welfare services.

"Everything we do requires face-to-face contact," she says, explaining how all of a client's information must be directly entered into a DTA computer program.

When Ms. Flynn leaves the office on March 15 with Two-Face by her side, she will need to recall a good piece of advice she's given for 26 years.

"I'll have to remind myself not to worry," she says, "that when one door closes, another will open."