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Masonic Care Community: 121 years of charity

By Norman Poltenson


UTICA — The Masonic fraternity, the oldest and largest fraternal organization in the world, focuses on community service and charitable work as its principal activities. In the United States, Masonic organizations spend more than $2 million every day on charitable services.

In the Mohawk Valley, the Masons established the Masonic Home in May 1893, fulfilling a dream first expressed in the ante-bellum period. The founders of the Masonic Home chose a site on Bleecker Street in Utica, which now comprises 400 acres. The New York State Masonic Community wanted to build a home to care for the indigent Mason, his wife, widow, and orphan. They chose Utica, because it was in the center of the state.

The Masonic Care Community of New York is owned by the Trustees of the Masonic Hall and Asylum Fund, a New York corporation established in1864. In April of this year, the Trustees will celebrate 150 years of service.

“The first structure erected in 1893 housed everything and everyone, providing the basic needs of food, shelter, clothing, and education,” says Kathy Contino-Turner, director of communications and marketing at the Masonic Care Community. “As the need grew, so grew the structures on campus. The Booth Memorial Children’s Building was first in 1898, followed by the Knights Templar in 1916 for girls, and a two-story brick structure for young children in 1923 … The Scottish Rite building … originally housed the older boys in 1924 and Wiley Hall in 1928 was constructed as the boys’ dormitory.”

What started as a haven for a few has morphed today into a complex that houses more than 500 elders. “In the 1970s, the trustees made a decision to focus on care for the elderly and to open our community to both Masons and non-Masons,” notes Robert J. Raffle, the executive director of Masonic Care Community. “We changed the corporate name in 1992 from the Masonic Home to the Masonic Care Community of New York. If you tour our campus, you will find independent living in Acacia Village; senior care, which includes long-term care, adult residential care, and home care; short-term rehabilitation; and child care. Our skilled-nursing facility houses 320 beds, of which 10 percent is dedicated to short-term rehabilitation therapy  … Acacia Village has 135 apartments … Our child-care center caters to children from the age of six weeks to 5 years and is open both to staff and to the community.”

Masonic Care Community is a major contributor to the local economy, with an operating budget of $50 million and 900 employees. In addition to the campus in Utica, which encompasses more than a million square feet, the Trustees own property in Woodgate and Tappan New York and in New York City. According to the Trustees of the Masonic Hall and Asylum Fund’s 2011 990-form, the corporation has net assets in excess of $250 million.

The Masonic Care Community is the original charity of the New York State Masonic Fraternity, and its operation continues to see challenges. According to Raffle, “Today, 70 percent of our reimbursements come through Medicare and Medicaid. New York State has signaled that it can’t sustain the growing cost of Medicaid, and the federal government continues to put pressure on Medicare reimbursements. Coupling the declining reimbursements with the fact that the Oneida County community is aging rapidly puts added pressure on us to adapt.

“We continue to be challenged to do more with less,” notes Raffle,” which is largely due to the continued strain on our state and federal reimbursement structure. We have become more creative and adaptive in our approach to problems and have reached out to our community partners to form new relationships. We need to be able to adapt, and the only way to do that successfully is to anticipate the trends and changes [in our industry]. We can never sacrifice quality, so we need to be one step ahead. That’s why the executive team is always looking three to five years into the future to plan our course. One example of looking ahead was the decision to enter the home-care field in 2004 by buying a local home-care agency. Our executive team focuses on developing strategic initiatives to take full advantage of opportunities to expand and strengthen our Masonic Care Community.”

Raffle attributes Masonic Care’s growth over the years to its employees. “In our industry, there is a lot of turnover each year,” states Raffle. “We work hard to identify employees committed to quality and who care about their work. We have a complex interview process, but the result is a passionate … [workforce] that’s dedicated to caring for our residents. As a result, we have a much lower turnover rate than the average and a strong recognition of our quality and family culture.”

Raffle was born in Ilion and graduated from SUNYIT in 1996 with a degree in health-services administration. He worked in Tennessee, Georgia, and North Carolina garnering experience with a for-profit, health-care group. Raffle returned to the Mohawk Valley in 2002 where he was the administrator at a nursing home in Rome. The Ilion native joined the Masonic Care Community in 2004 as the assistant executive director and assumed the duties of the executive director in 2012. He lives in Ilion with his wife Amy and three children.

“Our residents and staff live charity every day,” avers Raffle. “Our seniors in the Health Pavilion participate in numerous activities and raise thousands of dollars. To name a few: residents of Acacia Village hold an annual “Souper Bowl” to raise funds for the Child Care Center. The Resident Council holds bake sales, garage sales, and basket raffles throughout the year. The Masonic Care Community will hold its second annual fundraiser — ‘The Mighty Run’ — on the campus in September … The campus itself plays host to a number of local, nonprofit organizations. In 2013, various charities utilized our campus to hold fundraisers that generated more than $500,000. That’s a pretty impressive record … We live charity every day.”

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