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Company Town

There’s never a dull moment in Allie Stickney’s workday

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Allie StickneyAs president and CEO of Wake Robin in Shelburne, Vermont’s first life-care community launched 13 years ago, Allie Stickney juggles business management, politics, construction, community issues, health care — and occasionally sawdust. She’s pictured in the woodworking shop, where Dick Walters, a resident, works on a Chester yawl being built by residents.

Somebody once likened Allie Stickney’s job to being mayor of a small town. She doesn’t disagree. As president and CEO of Wake Robin Retirement Community in Shelburne, Stickney faces issues daily that might be encountered by the mayor of any municipality. 

“I have found it a very apt description,” says Stickney. “My day has everything from working with the board on our strategic planning process — moving that along — to spending time walking the halls, talking with residents, making sure I’m out and about — and in a very informal way being present in the community — to dealing with the lives of people who live here, to working with the medical staff to make sure residents are well-cared-for in the health facility.” 

She mentions a recent issue around dogs and how to resolve issues of the various residents’ needs on animal rules. “Pets are allowed at Wake Robin,” she adds. “The challenge is having a set of rules everybody can live by.”

Wake Robin has the amenities of a small town, too, with gardens, a pool, homes and apartments, health care facilities, walking trails, a library, dining facilities, a fitness center, a laundry, even a beauty salon. “We’re a 24/7 operation,” Stickney says.

Stickney is a pretty savvy “mayor,” with a “can-do” approach that serves the community well. Walking through the facility, she greets every resident and employee she encounters by name, as a compatriot — not an easy job in a place on 137 acres with 200 employees and upwards of 320 residents, the majority of whom live independently. 

Wake Robin, which opened in 1993, is a life-care community — Vermont’s first one. As independent-living residents reach a point where they have to move into residential care or a skilled nursing unit, those services are right there. A big part of Stickney’s job is making sure that, regardless of where residents live on campus, they’re safe and well, she says.

“An important point,” she says, “is that when a person or couple decides to move to Wake Robin, they are buying an insurance policy, not purchasing real estate here. We’re regulated by the state Banking and Insurance Commission. They’re buying long-term care insurance.”

This presents a big advantage in terms of cost, Stickney continues, because residents can deduct well over a third of the entry cost from their income tax as a health-care-related cost, and this year, people can deduct up to 38 percent of their monthly fees as well.

Wake Robin is required to report quarterly to the state that it has the funds to cover the residents living there as they age, Stickney says, and the state conducts unannounced inspections every 15 months. “In fact, the state inspector came in December,” she says with pride, “and we had zero deficiencies — not for the first time.”

Stickney’s enthusiasm does not stop at the Wake Robin property line. To the contrary, it seems to be an inborn trait. 

She grew up in Rochester, Minn., where her father was a physician at the Mayo Clinic, and her mother, a former lab technician. Married at 18, Stickney dropped out of her studies at the University of Michigan to follow her husband to Williams College in Massachusetts. “The journey was: dropping out of college, getting married, having kids,” she says. “He went to Williams College, so I took classes at Williams; he went to law school at the University of Colorado, and I took classes at Colorado. We decided to settle in Vermont, and I went back to school full time at UVM and got my degree, and then we got divorced.”

Nancy Chiquoine, Linda Phypers, Henry MorenoThe majority of Wake Robin’s residents live independently, but as they get to a point where they must move into residential care or a skilled nursing unit, they will find it right there. Nancy Chiquoine (left), director of marketing and residential services; Linda Phypers, director of health services; and Henry Moreno, director of environmental services, are pictured in the library.

They chose Vermont because of an article in National Geographic. “We saw this article, saw this town called Burlington sitting on this big lake surrounded by mountains, with a university and an IBM plant, and we said, ‘Huh! That looks like an interesting place.’” They arrived in 1968.

Although both of them were familiar with New England, neither had been to Burlington before, says Stickney. “It took about 10 minutes,” she says, recalling a drive down Shelburne Point on a beautiful June evening. “The cows were still grazing on the point, the sun beginning to set over the Adirondacks, and I said to myself, ‘I don’t understand why the whole world doesn’t live in this spot.’”

The second of their three children had just been born, so Stickney was a stay-at-home mother. It wasn’t until she and her husband separated, “in ’73 or ’74,” she says, that she knew she needed to finish that college degree. She expresses a strong allegiance to the University of Vermont, “not only because it was a good place to go to school, but it was also a place where I was able to work around being a single mom.”

In 1977, having earned her degree in sociology, Stickney learned of an opening at Planned Parenthood, which was hiring its first full-time development person. She had been a volunteer with the organization for years, having worked in the family planning clinic and served on the board of directors. She was hired.

“I spent about a year doing development work,” she says, “and then moved over to the management side and became manager of all the clinic sites in Vermont.” As the organization went through mergers with other family-planning organizations throughout New England, eventually becoming Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, she became director of clinical service for 26 clinics in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. 

Stickney did that for 11 years. “Then I was ready to lead an organization,” she says. “We had a good strong leader here at Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, so I began to look around at other opportunities and, in early ’89, joined as executive director of the Planned Parenthood of the Columbia/Willamette, with health centers in Oregon and Washington state.”

She had remarried in 1983, to David Wagner, who had been the first executive director of Planned Parenthood of Vermont. He had been doing organizational development consulting from 1977 to 1984 and, hoping to quit traveling, had taken a job as operations director at University Health Center, which he held until 1988. In ’89, they moved to Oregon.

Six years later, they faced a big decision, says Stickney, when the person who had been the head of Planned Parenthood of Northern New England left, and that job was open. “David and I made a very hard choice, in that we both loved Oregon, so we were in the envious position of choosing between two lovely alternatives.” Vermont still felt like home base for them, so back they came.

Stickney served as president and CEO until 2000, when she accepted an opportunity to work for Planned Parenthood Federation of America in New York as vice president for international programs. “Neither David nor I wanted to leave Vermont, so I commuted weekly from Hinesburg to New York City for six years.” she says.

Her job took her all over the world to developing countries, “working with community-based organizations to bring family planning to women who wouldn’t normally have access to an ability to control their fertility.” 

After six years, she had had enough of travel. “It was my turn to say I wanted to be off the road,” she says. “My husband had been diagnosed with cancer in 2004, and it was just too difficult to be making that commute.”

Serendipitously, just as Stickney was beginning to ponder her next move, she received a call from the person from the search firm working with Wake Robin. “Of all the things I had thought I might do in coming back to Vermont, Wake Robin was not one I had thought about,” she says.

Residents shoot a game of poolWake Robin is very much like a small town, with gardens, a pool, homes and apartments, health care facilities, walking trails, a library, dining facilities, a fitness center, even a beauty salon. Fred Erdmann, cheif financial officer; Kathy King, director of dining services; and Anne Levesque, director of human resources, chat in a recreation area while residents Bob Senghas (left) and Gordon Lowe shoot a game of pool.

Andrea Rogers, CEO of the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington, has known Stickney since the 1970s. “Allie was looking for a challenge, with confidence in her own abilities,” she says. “Her kind of quiet confidence in herself is very merited. She has a great ability to take on big responsibilities and carry them out well.”

Stickney knew several of the founders, was quite familiar with the facility at Wake Robin, and was very curious to find out about the job. She was named one of three finalists for the position and went through what she calls being “thoroughly vetted by management, staff, the board of directors, and the residents. Each finalist went before the residents for an hour to an hour and 15 minutes.”

When her turn came, Stickney told her part of the story and why she was interested in the job, and then the residents peppered her with questions. “They wanted to know everything, from the latest book I had read to what my personal values system was to whether I was a PC or a Mac user,” she says with a chuckle. “I told them that was like asking me whether I was a Red Sox or a Yankees fan.” 

That process is very much a reflection of what Wake Robin is, Stickney continues. “It’s heavily resident-driven and has a high degree of involvement.” She was hired in August 2006.

The community had just begun a major expansion, constructing 37 new cottages and work on the long-term care facility. Her predecessor, David Coleman, had retired after 13 years at the helm. “He created the kind of environment here where the values of residents are treated with value and respect, with open communication, an active community that has fun together,” says Stickney. “We had one day of overlap, I think. He left much-loved.”

Following a beloved predecessor is never easy. There were some staff turnovers, and these changes meant stress for residents, who are very connected with staff. Stresses at home supplemented  challenges at work in her first year. Her husband did not survive his battle with cancer and died May 15. Now, nearly a year removed from his death, Stickney manages it with her typical aplomb and understatement. “It was quite a first year here at Wake Robin.” •

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