On Feb. 26, The Gathering Place is celebrating its 25th year of providing services to the elderly and to those who have Alzheimer's Disease and dementia or who are physically or cognitively disabled.

Anyone who has visited The Gathering Place at 30 Terrace St. in Brattleboro can't help but be touched by the atmosphere of joy and caring that is evident after you immediately walk in the door.

TGP, as it is known by staff and participants and their family members, serves families in the tri-state region, providing their loved ones with the care they need regardless of age, race, religion and socioeconomic status.

"Everyone says that being a caregiver is a very difficult job but I don't think people realize how difficult until it happens to their family," noted one person whose father receives services at TGP. "The load falls on my mom, she is an incredible woman with unbelievable strength to be able to keep her attitude while dealing with this situation. A caregiver would never be able to continue what they do without a break, that is what The Gathering Place provides."

Most importantly, TGP gives primary caregivers time to accomplish "the other 100 things that need attention but can't be completed while she is caring for my dad. It is truly a full-time job."

"Thank you for helping me when I first enrolled our mom," said another letter writer. "I was able to keep mom home because of your wonderful program. My mom looked forward to coming and you gave her joy in her last year. Thank you for your patience when I was a mess emotionally. Thank you."

In 1989 The Gathering Place opened its doors as a program of the Council on Aging for Southeastern Vermont. The first center opened with two staff, and served six families three days a week.

By 1990, the center was serving 26 families and by 1992 it was serving 45 families and averaging 10 participants per day. In 1993, The Gathering Place incorporated and today it serves 30 or more participants a day.

TGP, as it's known by its staff and participants, spent its early years operating out of the recreation room at Hilltop House before moving in 2000 to Brattleboro West Plaza, but the board and staff realized that it would continue to grow and its own facility would eventually be needed.

In October 2001, that dream became a reality when TGP purchased its present site in Brattleboro from the Eagles. The lovely 1800s Victorian building was purchased, financed through an Adult Day Care expansion grant from the state of Vermont and a low-interest mortgage from the USDA. The building was renovated with a grant from the USDA and assistance from the ubiquitous Thomas Thompson Trust, Brattleboro's angel of charity for many worthy causes. The Thompson Trust's grant was matched from local businesses and community members and "in-kind" donations from the board, staff and volunteers, which helped lessen construction costs. In 2013, the building received another round of renovations and repairs in an effort to accommodate the program's expanding client base.

But The Gathering Place is not resting. Recently, it received a grant for dementia training and many staff members have become certified in Alzheimer's and dementia care. Last year it started a home care program that offers up to 24-hour non-skilled care for people in their homes.

Mary Fredette, executive director of The Gathering Place, said the staff are friendly and knowledgeable and work together as a team to meet the needs of TGP's participants and their families according to their individual goals and illnesses.

"The staff are a compassionate well trained-group that really care about people as evidenced by the activities, happy smiles and laughter heard throughout the day."

But, said Fredette, The Gathering Place couldn't do what it does without the 30 or so volunteers that pitch in to help out.

"Many help with activities, serve on our board, help with fundraising or share their entertainment skills."

Fredette said volunteers and visitors from community groups, SIT Graduate Institute and other organizations help to lift the spirits of the participants. In addition, through United Way's Day of Sharing, volunteers have brought new life to tables, chairs, the gardens, and painted walls.

"Volunteers enrich the lives of our participants, their families, and our staff of The Gathering Place," said Fredette. "They are pivotal to our success."

On Feb. 26, from 3 to 8 p.m., TGP will be celebrating with an open house and art show, consisting of art created by program participants. The Gathering Place has a very rich art program, and one of its participants, who has three forms of cerebral palsy, does artwork with a headset and paint brush. We encourage all members of the community to attend the open house, view the art, and spend some time talking with the program's participants.

But more importantly, take a few moments to thank the staff members, the volunteers, the board members and all those who keep the program running and provide this invaluable service to those in our community who so desperately need it.

They are truly unsung heroes of our community.