News and analysis
December 13, 2012

Multigenerational Communities Sprout to Aid Vulnerable People

Michael McDermott, for The Chronicle

Bridge Meadows, a nonprofit housing community in Portland, Ore., brings together foster children and older residents who help care for them.

When Lynda Komanecky learned about a new community in Portland, Ore., specifically designed to house elderly people to help young parents raise foster children, she knew that it was the place for her.

“I had a feeling that I could really make a contribution,” says Ms. Komanecky, 65, who moved to Bridge Meadows from her Illinois home last spring. “I have a lot of love left to give, and that’s what these kids need.”

Bridge Meadows, which opened in 2011, is home to three generations of residents: older people, like Ms. Komanecky, who receive discounted rent in exchange for volunteering 10 hours a week; foster children; and the families who are in the process of adopting them.

Derenda Schubert, Bridge Meadows’ executive director, says that the concept is so effective because it responds to the distinct needs of the residents.

“Our elders feel like they have a purpose, that they’re needed, while the families get supported and the kids get loved and cared for,” she says. “We’ve seen an incredibly positive impact in a very short period of time.”

Forming Relationships

Proponents of this approach say that Bridge Meadows, and an expanding network of similar groups, could help all sorts of vulnerable people, including wounded veterans and developmentally disabled adults. And with the housing market finally on the rebound, they see an opportunity for expansion.

“I believe that this is a 21st-century solution to helping fix problems that traditional social services haven’t been able to fix,” says Brenda Eheart, executive director of the Generations of Hope Development Corporation, who created the first of these programs. “Think about the way a strong community works. People of all ages know each other and care enough to want to help one another. That’s exactly the dynamic that we’re trying to create.”

Pioneers of this concept are now being recognized for their vision. This month, Judy Cockerton, founder of Treehouse, a multigenerational community­ in Easthampton, Mass., received a $100,000 Purpose Prize from for her work. The award is given annually to people age 60 and up who have tackled social problems in an innovative way.

The multigenerational strategy has drawn support from the W.K. Kellogg and Heinz Family foundations, among other grant makers; Kellogg made a $7.7-million grant in 2007 to accelerate Generations of Hope’s expansion to 18 states.

“We’re used to funding social-service programs to fix community problems,” says Ted Chen, a former program director at Kellogg who oversaw the grant. “With this investment, we were trying a different approach. We wanted to see if the natural relationships that form in communities could be more effective in helping people.”

Mr. Chen says he has continued faith in the innovative approach Kellogg supported. But spreading the idea isn’t easy, say organizers.

Despite promising results, building such communities from scratch can present challenges in raising money, acquiring land and property, and creating the organizations to support them.

All Ages

Communities like Bridge Meadows, Treehouse, and others can trace their origins back to 1994, when Ms. Eheart, a sociologist at the University of Illinois, created Hope Meadows on the grounds of a shuttered Air Force base in Rantoul, Ill.

She envisioned the original community as a way to help two very different types of people in need: foster children, many of whom have endured neglect and abuse, and elderly people, who often feel discarded by a country that worships youth.

Today, Hope Meadows is a thriving, multigenerational community of 48 people age 55 and older, 36 children, and 14 parents.

What’s more, the success of Ms. Eheart’s concept can be measured in the educational accomplishments of the foster children who’ve grown up in the Illinois community. While just 30 percent of foster children across the country graduate from high school, 100 percent of those from Hope Meadows have earned a high-school diploma or its equivalent.

“When you give foster children a secure and stable environment in which to grow up, they thrive,” says Ms. Eheart.

She believes that just as the seniors have been key to the success of foster kids at Hope Meadows, they can be a “stabilizing influence” in programs serving wounded military veterans, children with development disabilities or autism, and mothers returning from incarceration.

Supporting Veterans

In New Orleans, Generations of Hope Development Corporation is advising Dylan Tête, an Iraq war veteran, who wants to create a community that will bring together veterans with severe traumatic brain injuries, their families, and elderly people. Called Bastion, the community will be housed on an old naval support base and will eventually be home to 155 residents.

“Returning veterans run the risk of being homeless or institutionalized or committing suicide,” says Mr. Tête. “There are so many military families that are disintegrating. This is a way for us to keep families intact but surround them with support.”

Mr. Tête’s passion for the intergenerational concept was borne of personal experience. He returned from combat with no physical wounds but plenty of psychological scars.

Deeply depressed, he ultimately sought treatment through the Department of Veterans Affairs, but it was his experience volunteering at an annual summer camp for children who had lost a parent to military service that really helped him.

“It gave me the courage to live on,” Mr. Tête says.

While Bastion is still in the planning stages—the nonprofit that will oversee the community was created last month—the idea has already attracted some high-profile support.

Bastion has received a $100,000 grant from the Bob Woodruff Foundation, started by the ABC television reporter who sustained serious injuries while covering the Iraq war in 2006.

Independent Living

Yet another community is in the works near Hilton Head, S.C., this one for families who have adult children with developmental disabilities.

Osprey Village bills itself as a “purpose-driven neighborhood.” Its goal is to allow developmentally disabled adults to live as independently as possible, alongside other residents who volunteer as caregivers and helpers.

The nonprofit organization is currently in negotiations to purchase a plot of land in Bluffton, S.C., so it can build six residences for special-needs adults and 16 homes and an apartment building for family members and elderly residents.

David Green, a co-founder of Osprey Village and the father of a 30-year-old son with developmental disabilities, says that the vision for the community stemmed from necessity.

Currently, 2,500 disabled adults are on waiting lists to live in group homes in South Carolina.

Says Mr. Green, “If you’re a parent of an adult child with special needs, you can’t help but worry: What if I’m not around to care for my son or daughter?”

'Many Moving Parts’

While Bastion and Osprey Village both offer the promise of aiding vulnerable people, both are also facing the challenges of trying to build a community from scratch.

“There are so many moving parts—it’s like playing chess,” says Mr. Green.

Money has been a particular challenge for Osprey Village, which was created six years ago and has spent much of that time raising funds to pay for the project.

It will cost $7-million to buy the land and build the facility—and beyond that, operations costs will need to be covered.

For the initial phase of the project, the group is applying for a federal rural-development grant, with hopes of raising the rest from private sources.

The organization opened a thrift store a year ago to help produce revenue; it has also run fundraising events and received a grant from a local community foundation.

But Osprey Village isn’t the only planned intergenerational community that struggles for money.

At a rough cost of $8,000 per person annually, Generations of Hope Development Corporation can provide support to its residents more cheaply than can many more traditional social-service charities and government agencies.

However, its multifaceted mission—to serve seniors, foster kids, wounded soldiers—often doesn’t appeal to foundations that have narrow grant-making programs.

Government money also helps fill the financial gaps. For example, both Bridge Meadows and Treehouse were built with the help of federal tax credits that subsidize low-cost housing.

Building Boards

Ms. Eheart, whose organization provides financial and management assistance to aspiring intergenerational communities, says that her group is often contacted by people who have heard about Hope Meadows and want to create their own version but lack the skills and support they need.

“The bottom line is you need a functioning organization,” she says. “It can’t just be one person with a vision.”

A planned community requires structure, including a charity to oversee the project and a board of directors made up of people with fundraising expertise, savvy about government programs, and deep knowledge of how to serve people who face specific challenges.

Bridge Meadows’ board, for example, includes former foster and adopted children as well as adoptive parents.

“We felt like we really needed that authentic voice,” says Ms. Schubert.

Housing Rebound

Ms. Eheart has high hopes that the rebounding of the nation’s housing market will make it easier for groups like Osprey Village to see their ideas through to completion.

Kellogg’s $7.7-million grant to help Hope Meadows expand arrived just as the housing market collapsed and dozens of promising projects foundered in the resulting credit crunch.

Today, four additional communities are in the planning stages, including one for foster children in Tampa, Fla., that will be located in a formerly foreclosed apartment building.

In Massachusetts, Treehouse is celebrating its sixth year as an intergenerational community of seniors, foster children, and adoptive families.

The planned neighborhood of senior cottages and family dwellings is currently home to just over 100 people, roughly half of whom are foster kids and families that are in the process of adopting them. The rest are elderly people.

Rosa Young, 68, learned about Treehouse through a segment on NPR. At the time, Ms. Young, who is originally from Michigan, was in search of what to do with the rest of her life.

“I’d been traveling around in an RV, and hearing that story was sort of serendipitous,” says Ms. Young, who has been at Treehouse for almost six years. “I wanted to give back, and that’s exactly what I’m able to do here. We help the parents, the parents help us, and we all help the kids. It’s a very rich interchange.”