What You’ll Learn

Communication Specialist Cathy Black and her team at Sequachee Valley Electric Cooperative moved their annual senior expo online when COVID hit, and it wasn’t safe to host an in-person event.

Guest Speaker

Cathy Black

Show Notes

Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.


Intro: A production of WordSouth and Pioneer Utility Resources. StoryConnect: The Podcast, helping communicators discover ideas to shape their stories and connect with their customers.

Andy Johns: How can you connect with senior members in a virtual setting? That’s what we’ll be talking about on this episode of StoryConnect: The Podcast. My name is Andy Johns, your host, with WordSouth and Pioneer Utility Resources, and I’m joined on this episode by Cathy Black, who is the Communication Specialist over Sequachee Valley Electric Co-op. Thanks for joining me, Cathy.

Cathy Black: Thank you for having me.

Andy Johns: Now, Cathy and I met up at the TECA Conference, the Tennessee Electric Co-op Conference here a couple of weeks back, and I wanted to first off congratulate her for this virtual senior expo we’re going to be talking about taking home an award. So congratulations, Kathy.

Cathy Black: Thank you.

Andy Johns: Now, since I heard a little bit about this, I wanted to get Cathy onto an episode because I think it’s a fun idea to share with other folks. I know that the last couple of years have been a little different for everybody, to say the least. But Cathy, you guys found a way to still go ahead and reach out to seniors and engage with them, even if you couldn’t do it like you maybe normally had or would have in other years.

Cathy Black: That’s true. First of all, a senior expo is normally a health and information fair for those 55 and older and their caregivers. And we normally have exhibitors set up. We have local hospitals and health care providers providing cholesterol checks, blood pressure checks, all kinds of health services. And then we have people like representatives from Social Security, from human resource agencies, the area agency on aging and disability. And, of course, in 2020, we knew that we could not have an in-person event like that. But we felt like with the senior population being the most vulnerable to the COVID virus that we did not want them out and about, and we knew that they weren’t getting out very much, but they still needed this information and maybe more than during a regular year. So I talked with our CEO and said, “What do you want to do about the senior expo? Do you think we could still do something to get the information to them?” So he said, “Well, let’s explore it and see what we can do.” And so instead of sending out a letter that asked them to register for this event, I sent the letter explaining that we weren’t having a live event and asked for suggestions on, you know, if you have any ideas about how we could get this information to them.

Cathy Black: And one of our exhibitors, who was with the local telephone cooperative in Bledsoe County, they cover two of our counties, Bledsoe and Sequachee County. He was the one who does the filming, the videotaping, producing, the programing for their local access channel. And he gave me a call and said, “You know, I know how much that information that you have for them when you have the speakers,” because we usually do have four to six informational speakers at the event as well. And he said, “I know how much they get out of that. And what would you think of us filming your speakers, and then putting it on the local access channels?” And so I said, “Well, that sounds like a great idea.” And so he said, “Well, if you’ll just line up the speakers, give them my phone number, and we’ll set up a time to record it. I’ll meet them wherever it’s convenient for them.” And so we decided that we would have, he said it would be like a 30 minute segment. And rather than having one person talk for 30 minutes, we decided that we would have three, eight to 10 minute speakers and…

Andy Johns: That’s probably a good idea with people’s attention span being a little shorter online.

Cathy Black: Yes. And our CEO said, “You know, they’ve all been sitting at home and not going anywhere.” He said, “Make that middle section one where they get up and move.” Because in the past we have had “get fit while you sit” programs and gentle yoga and tai chi. So I got back with the people who normally help me with my programs and put out the message I was looking for speakers that we could record. And I did, we ended up with the gentle yoga and the tai chi, and then two physical therapists did some gentle movement. And so we provided a little exercise as well, and we had someone from the health department who gave them an overview of the status of COVID, as it was at that time, and a little information about the upcoming vaccines, and just kind of brought them up to date there. And then one of our most popular speakers is always an attorney from legal aid. And so we had them come on and talk about some topics that always get a lot of questions. And so we were able to get four videos made, and we released one each month in October. Because that’s normally when we do the senior expo, and it’s cooperative month. And so, it was two cooperatives working together,

Andy Johns: Right, and releasing those each week in October?

Cathy Black: Yes, and it was running on their local access. And Ethan said, “I’m sure that if you contact Ben Lomand Telephone Co-op,” which covers Grundy County, he said, “I’m sure they’ll put that on there, too.” So they were able to run it. And so our customers in Grundy County could see it. And actually, it covered several other counties that are covered by other electric co-ops. And then here in Marion County, we have a local radio station that had a local access television station, and we were able to run it there, too. So that took care of the visual part of it. But we also wanted to get them something to put in their hands or written information. And there is a a book called “The Senior Directory” that the area agency on aging and disability usually hand out, and it has contact information for health departments, the area agency on aging, SETHRA, and lots of information that seniors would like about senior housing and other programs. So we were able to get enough of these that we could get out to all the counties. I think we got about 1,200 of them last year. And then we put together a senior, a senior expo directory of local resources: food banks, clothing closets, cancer support groups and extension offices, health departments, senior centers. And we put that in our packets as well. And then a few of our exhibitors also provided us with information from their businesses and organizations to put in the packets. And we distributed the packets through the local senior centers in each county and through the food banks in each county. So we were able to get packets out to about 1,200 people.

Andy Johns: Excellent. And I didn’t even realize when we, you know, we had the idea to put this together, and when, you know, before we started, I didn’t even realize that it was cooperative month and working with other cooperatives. That’s very cool. Folks who are listeners to the podcast will probably remember we’ve had folks from Ben Lomand on, I believe we’ve had Ethan on the podcast as well. So it’s nice when things come together and a good chunk of Middle Tennessee there sounds like benefited from the work that you guys were doing. So how long have you guys been been putting on the senior expo before it went virtual? It sounds like, not just something you’ll sponsor, but something you guys host and kind of make happen.

Cathy Black: We host it. We started in 1999, so we’ve done this for over 20 years, and it’s grown. We’ve outgrown a couple of venues. We had to go to someplace larger. And the real one, we start at eight o’clock, and we have a breakfast so that they can eat after they’ve had their cholesterol checked.

Andy Johns: It’s probably way better to check the cholesterol first before you go and have the biscuits and sausage and bacon or whatever y’all are serving.

Cathy Black: That first year, we didn’t figure that, so we had to change. Our first year was, we put it together in a couple of months. Mike Partin and I went to a meeting in August, and we heard about this event that they were doing, and I think Huntsville and he said, “We need to do that. Let’s do it in October.” So it was thrown together that year, but we’ve learned a lot. And we feed them breakfast. We have the exhibitors. We have speakers, and then we have lunch. And then they go home. 

Andy Johns: So what is the response usually like? Obviously, it’s a good outreach, I’m assuming, for y’all. But kind of what is the response like from folks? And why is it that it’s something you’ve decided to continue doing for 20 years now?

Cathy Black: Ok. We have around a 100 people who come to this, a seniors, and we have 35 to 40 exhibits at each event. And one of the reasons that we started it was not only to get the information to the seniors, but was to promote our local businesses and our local organization and to have the seniors realize that they don’t have to go to Chattanooga. They don’t have to go to Nashville to get the services they need. That there are local providers. And also so that they could talk to somebody in-person rather than, you know, somebody over a phone and waiting online and to talk to someone. And just for the social benefits. I mean, if you’re a senior, you may not be out and around and this gives you an outing one day to go have breakfast with your friends and sit and talk and learn something and have lunch with them. And, we also work with local rural transportation program with through the Southeast Human Resource Agency. And if they need a ride, the co-op will pay for their transportation. And we don’t have a whole lot that do that, but we have a few each year. So we try to make it easy for them.

Andy Johns: Yeah, it would have been really easy for you guys to, you know, a lot of events took the approach. You know, it’s COVID. It’s a weird year. Let’s just skip it. What was it? Why do you think it was so important that you guys went ahead and even though it looked very different than what it was before, why do you think it was important for you all to go ahead and go through and offer the expo in a different way than you had before?

Cathy Black: Well, we just feel like it’s really important to connect with those seniors and for them to connect with their community at large. And we didn’t want them to think we’d forgotten about them. We just really are — this is a special program for us. We think it’s important, and we didn’t just want to let it disappear. Because we really did feel like those seniors were being kind of forgotten anyway. They’re at home. They’re not getting out, and we felt like we needed to reach out to them.

Andy Johns: Nice. Have you heard very much from folks? Have you gotten a response from anybody, maybe who’s seen it or from any of the vendors that you guys had on as speakers? Or any kind of, you know, response from it?

Cathy Black: Well, our speakers were very happy that they were able to get that information out. And the thing about it being on local access TV, we don’t know how many people saw it. They did run all of the videos. They ran the first week they had one video out, but he said, “You probably ran it every day.” We did get a schedule and of when it was going to be showing, and we did have that in the packet that we gave out. So that, and we put that schedule in the local newspapers so that people would know when to check. But he said, you know, somebody who’s up at 6:00 a.m. might see it then, but then somebody who’s on Night Owl might be seen at 11 o’clock. So we feel like a lot of people saw it, but we don’t really have any way to gauge it. That’s a downside. We could see how many people viewed it on our website and on Facebook. But the people who come to the senior expo are not really the people who were watching YouTube or Facebook. So, but they are the people that sit and watch that local access TV’s station.

Andy Johns: That’s right.

Cathy Black: They want to know what’s going on.

Andy Johns: And that’s smart to go ahead and put it on the website and Facebook, just in case somebody does want to see it that way, so that’s smart. So last question I have for you. If there’s somebody, you know, COVID is still kind of hanging around and people are looking at events in the spring. And, you know, I mean, who knows if another wave is coming through? There’s just so much we don’t know. So if there’s somebody who is in your shoes and has an event coming up and thinking about, well, do we not have it, or do we try to find some different way to do it? What advice do you have for those folks, or whether it’s a senior expo or any kind of event? What advice would you have for folks who are kind of on the fence about what to do in these strange times?

Cathy Black: I would say, talk to your partners. Talk to people in your community, because if I hadn’t asked for questions, I don’t know that I would have ever thought about asking Ben Lomand or Bledsoe Telephone to help me with that. But they always come to the senior expo, so I know that they’re interested in getting that information out to the community. So think about how could you do this? If you need the video work done, is there somebody that you know in your community who might be able to partner with you? So just think about your contacts, and how you can get that word out. Like we worked with the food banks and the senior citizens centers and stuff. So if you work in communications, you have those community contacts, and just think about how you can make partnerships.

Andy Johns: Perfect. Well, Cathy, thank you for. Thank you for sharing, and I hope it does go back to normal as soon as soon as possible for all of us. Not just for this, but for all of us.

Cathy Black: I miss seeing my people at those.

Andy Johns: I’m sure, yep. She is Cathy Black, the communications specialist with Sequachee Valley Electric Co-op. I’m Andy Johns, your host, with Pioneer Utility Resources and until we talk again. Keep telling your story!

Outro: StoryConnect is produced by WordSouth and Pioneer Utility Resources. Both companies are built to share your story. Our associate producer is Sarah Wootten. StoryConnect is engineered by Lucas Smith of Lucky Sound Studio.