In her widely quoted 1996 book, Hillary Clinton argued that it takes a village to raise a child. Now a group of dedicated local volunteers is trying to prove this same communal spirit can be applied to help senior citizens, specifically those who are heading toward retirement but have no interest in leaving their homes or apartments here on the East Side. And based on their impressive first year, the group just may be on to something.
Calling itself the Providence Village, it’s actually part of a national movement that began 40 miles north of us on Beacon Hill in 1999. The basic concept, as described in their literature, is “that neighbors could remain in their homes and help each other grow older together – if they started early enough while they still had the health and acuity to shape their lives and to build new friendships with a shared purpose.” Obviously the idea seems to have hit a nerve with the demographic since the Village-to-Village Network now encompasses about 200 communities across the country and is growing rapidly.
Operating under the motto “One call does it all,” the plan is that members can remain in their homes while being able to access information, services and staff or volunteer support so that they can continue to live at home in safety and confidence knowing they’re connected to a supportive community. Each “village” adopts its own model but typically is made up of a combination of members, volunteers, a small staff and a network of vetted professionals to provide services, often at a group-rate reduced price. The network encompasses quite a wide range of structures. The Beacon Hill Village, for example, has seven full- or part-time employees while the one on Cape Cod is run completely by volunteers.
The goal of all the Villages is pretty much the same though. “For those residents who want to continue living on the East Side or Oak Hill, we like to think we’re offering an alternative to living with our out-of-state children or moving into a gated, assisted living community while allowing us to maintain our independence,” says Cy O’Neil, the current head of the Providence Village Board. O’Neil himself is in his 60s but continues to commute daily from his Oak Hill home to Boston where he works as the assistant director of planning at Boston College.
The Providence Village grew out of a series of informal potluck dinners and discussions among a small group of East Siders who were interesting in seeing if they could somehow stay together as they aged and had no desire to leave the East Side back in the spring of 2014. Jane Adler, who lives on Faunce Drive, was one of the early organizers and described the process. “We started with a steering committee to gauge the degree of community interest here while we learned all we could about the Village model and how to create it,” she says. “We distributed surveys, held community meetings, crafted mission statements, developed the necessary bylaws and tax-exempt status for us to function. Everyone pitched in. Everyone believed in it.” Adler now contributes as a board member, head of the membership committee and the organizer of many of the Village’s social activities – breakfast and lunch get-togethers, opera and theatre parties and the like.
By the summer of 2015, Providence Village was ready to roll. Volunteers were recruited and trained by some of those first members, some retired, others still working, but most of whom brought with them useful skills in organization, gerontology, computer expertise, communication and more. Membership fees were established at $480 a year ($40 a month) for an individual and $240 a year ($20 a month) for a spouse or partner.
So how are they doing? “We’re quite pleased,” reports O’Neil. “A year ago we set six objectives for ourselves to be accomplished by [December] and we’ve accomplished them all.” The group’s initial goals were indeed quite ambitious. They now have several tangible member services up and running, like providing rides, running errands and offering in-home tech support and in-home help in addition to their social events. The group remains committed to being diverse and inclusive in their membership while creating a real sense of community to combat loneliness. On the list for next year: implementing a healthcare advocacy program for members as well as an expanding network of vetted outside service providers. In addition, the group is hiring their first paid employee, a part-time member services coordinator, to handle functions now performed by board members.
Nan Levine, who has lived on the East Side for 60 years, and is now a resident of East Side Commons, explains her involvement. “I like to think I still have plenty of things I can do to help people; I just can’t drive,” she says. So aided by the Village’s ride service, she now functions as the team leader for the group’s friends program. “I’m independent and always have been. Don’t take that away from me.”
A participant since the beginning, Pat Mattingly is a board member and incoming president. Having retired as a physician seven years ago, Pat and his wife have lived off Benefit Street for 26 years and didn’t want to move anywhere else. “So we’ve made some adjustments,” he explains. “First we renovated our house to work primarily on one floor. Fortunately we don’t need any of the services offered by the Village yet, but I feel I have some organizational and medical skills that are useful and so it was natural to join the board.”
The Village also partners with existing resources such as Lifelong Learning and Hamilton House. Because the Village’s offices are on the second floor of Hamilton House on Angell Street, an obvious collaboration has developed there. Hamilton House offers a weekly computer training course taught by volunteer Brown students. Village members are allowed to attend; meanwhile volunteers from the Village help the Brown student-teachers by providing one-on-one tech support in the classroom.
So what’s next for Providence Village? “We now have signed up over 100 members, plus have quite a few volunteers helping us as well,” reports O’Neil. Some of their volunteers are quite well known in the community. The volunteer “staff photographer” for the group is Phil West, former head of Common Cause. Active on the membership committee and advisory council is East Sider Bill Twaddell, a retired former ambassador to Nigeria.
They and many of the other volunteers donate their time for what seems to be two major reasons. One is the pure desire to be part of this noble endeavor. The other is perhaps a bit more self-serving. Says Pat Mattingly: “Right now I have the time and energy to help grow this exciting project. Perhaps in ten years, this exciting project will be there to help take care of me.”
For more information about the Providence Village, either to join as a member or to volunteer your time, contact ProvidenceVillageRI.org or call 441-5240. Providence Village is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.