CULLMAN, Ala. – After six years leading the Cullman County Commission on Aging, Director Dusty Baker has stepped down. His last day will be Friday, Feb. 12, and he calls his decision “bittersweet.” The Tribune sat down with Baker Tuesday to learn more.
Baker said his decision was based on his desire to move closer to family.
“We had a few options come up and we have decided to go to Florida. Going to the beach!” he said. “Jessica is looking forward to getting back closer to her family and I have family down there as well.”
Dusty and Jessica Baker, along with their two daughters, are relocating to Lakeland, Florida.
“The kids are excited, and we are all going to miss our friends and family here. It’s bittersweet because this has, by far, been the greatest job I have ever had. I love the people who I serve and the people who I work with. It’s hard to let go of something so good, but at the same time, the Good Lord has opened some doors for us, and I am looking forward to the new adventure.”
Baker said he is not able to announce at this time what opportunities await him in Florida, smiling, “It’s hard for me to keep secrets!”
He began his tenure at the Commission on Aging a little more than six years ago.
When asked what he is most proud of, he said, “We accomplished so much in these six years, and it’s not one person or me. It took a total team effort. We rebranded the Commission on Aging. That’s one of the first things that we did because every time I would speak to somebody or a group, not everybody had heard of the Commission on Aging or they didn’t know what we did, so we launched a new rebranding campaign. We got a nice logo so people could associate with the Commission on Aging.”
He is also proud of the new centers and renovations that have taken place over the past six years.
“Fairview has a new senior center. Holly Pond is getting a new one. Hanceville is getting a new one. We’ve got the one out at Crane Hill that’s basically the sheriff’s office and we’ve also renovated some of our existing centers. We’ve taken advantage of a lot of grant money that we’ve been fortunate enough to get and pump it into the Commission on Aging to sustain us,” said Baker. “I always said I wanted to leave it better than I found it. That’s my philosophy, and I feel we have done that.”
In his time working with Cullman County seniors, there were many memorable moments for Baker.
What will he remember the most?
He said with a laugh, “I will always remember the seniors and how they don’t have a filter. I appreciate that because sometimes it’s not what you want to hear, but you know it’s honest and comes from a good place. It’s funny, the way they cut up, dance and laugh. I especially remember the ones that aren’t with us anymore.”
COVID-19 has severely limited the Commission on Aging’s services for almost a full year. The senior centers remain closed, and that is something Baker hopes will change soon.
He explained, “I don’t know which is worse for them, COVID or the isolation. Routine is very important to seniors and that routine and social aspect of everything keeps them active and going and looking forward to something.”
In a normal year, the Commission on Aging would look forward to the many large senior events scheduled throughout the year. Under Baker’s leadership, new events were added, and yearly traditions were enhanced.
“We built upon things that were already here, but we also came up with some readjustments,” he said. “We had the Senior Shindig, and the City (of Cullman) was also competing during the same time frame with the Strawberry Festival. We said, ‘Hey, let’s get together and do one big event and call it the Senior Shindig at the Strawberry Festival.’”
The Senior Christmas Party, Senior Fishing Days in Hanceville and Senior Days at Cullman Oktoberfest and the Cullman County Fair are other events that are normally held each year for not only Cullman County seniors, but also other senior groups from around Alabama.
“Anything we could do to celebrate and get seniors out laughing and enjoying themselves and having fun, we would do it,” said Baker. “It’s something I dearly missed this past year.”
Baker was clear that the obstacles and frustrations of the past year had no influence on his decision to leave, saying, “It didn’t influence my decision because this has been the greatest job I have ever had, and I love the job. I absolutely love the people I serve and the people I serve with. This opportunity is more about reconnecting with some family I have been away from, and my wife is reconnecting with her family. We are embracing the change a little bit. It’s tough what we are going through, and we are constantly trying to coordinate stuff because nothing is routine during this time.”
The Cullman County Commission has not selected a new director for the Commission on Aging, but Baker said he feels confident it will select a person with a “big heart for seniors.” He said, “I have total faith in them, and they have been nothing but great to us. They have supported our vision and what we have wanted to do. I am sure they will continue to do that.”
Baker said one of the hardest parts of saying good-bye is not being able to say good-bye to the seniors he loves.
“We’ll be back and forth, and I will definitely come back and visit. When things do open back up, I am going to make a special point to come back and hug some necks,” he smiled. “I miss Friday mornings; they had a big gospel singing next door and I miss hearing that on Fridays. I looked forward to that and sometimes I would go next door and sing with them. They would absolutely raise the roof. It was such a blessing to hear and see and be a part of. A lot of little things like that will stick with me forever. This job is so rewarding, and I have always said, ‘You find true joy when you are able to serve others.’ That’s exactly what this job brought to me-true joy. I love our seniors and I have a heart for seniors. I will always cherish the moments I have had the past six years here. It developed me as a person.”
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