They did not wear caps and gowns but they did receive diplomas. Seven residents at Mrs. Bush's Personal Care Homes graduated from the Pennsylvania Empowered Expert Resident (PEER) program. They are: Rose Kowalski, Ed Moglia, Judy Kresge, Lenore Butz, Sony Jackson, Eleanore Kime, Elizabeth Darocha.

"This is a big accomplishment for them. They had to participate in over 10 hours of training," said Carrie Shafer, activity director at Mrs. Bush's.

Sharon Miller, Monroe County Ombudsman, conducted the training classes.

"We teach residents in personal care and nursing homes about their rights and how to advocate and maintain their rights for themselves and their fellow residents," said Miller.

In the PEER program, residents are taught how to work with facility staff to enhance their quality of care and life for all residents. Self-resolution and empowerment are themes consistently emphasized in all statewide trainings. The PEER program also allows residents to make changes to the home to improve quality care.

Carolyn Tenaglia, Regional Ombudsman Coordinator of Northeast region of Pennsylvania State Office of Ombudsman, attended the graduation. She said the PEER program began in 2000 in Cambria County, PA, the first state to initiate such a program. Since then, 1,300 people have graduated. Mrs. Bush's is the first facility in Monroe County to have participated in the program.

"It's a working partnership between owners and residents. It helps make life better in facilities. We're glad you took time to go through our training," she said.

Miller said that when she arrived at Mrs. Bush's she learned that the residents really didn't have any concerns.

"I heard only praise for the staff and care," she said.

The program was broken up into five sessions. The first focused on the residents. The second, the facility itself, discussing who to go to if there are issues. The third was on self-resolution, how to empower themselves. The fourth was about respect and confidentiality because sometimes it's just about how an issue is seen from a point of view. The final session was about abuse.

Now it's up to the graduates to educate the rest of the residents.

Each graduate received a certificate for completing the program, a sign to put up by their door that a PEER Graduate Resident Here, a PEER badge with a lanyard, a starfish pin and polo shirts from the state. The two men received a desk clock with the inscription, "Making a difference."The five ladies received a Liztech starfish necklace, as did Carolyn Tenaglia and Carrie Shafer.

Ms. Tenaglia explained the significance of the starfish and the inscription "Making a difference" comes from the story of one man coming upon another man on a beach who is picking up and throwing stranded starfish back into the sea so they won't die. The first man says, "Don't you realize there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish? You can't make a difference." After listening politely, the other man bends down, picks up another starfish, throws it back into the surf and says, "I made a difference to that one."

Patty Fretz, director of Monroe County Area Agency on Aging and Monroe County Commissioner Suzanne McCool attended the graduation.

McCool said, "I'm happy to be here. This is wonderful and meaningful to our community. You're giving of yourself to other people and this program taught you how to be empowered."

Carrie Shafer and Curtis Bush, general manager of Mrs. Bush's, received a certificate of appreciation.

"On behalf of my parents, (JoAnn and Bob Bush), we are in favor of any program aimed at improving and raising the standard of living for our residents. We're sure that this will do that. We're supporting it. It's promising for the future of other residents. We tell our residents, 'Our home is your home,'" said Bush.

Born out of the program, the PEER graduates decided they would like to form a welcoming committee to greet new residents when they arrive, to help with their transition to the home. Mr. Bush thinks it is an excellent idea.

"Here at Mrs. Bush's we strive to have a clean beautiful home with friendly staff members who care about your loved one's quality of life. The PEER program only makes our home better because it allows more resident input and interaction between the residents and the facility," said Shafer.