At Genesis, a new beginning

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend
Barbara Ruben

Ernie Osunkoya treasures the opportunity to read books to young children like Nijae Duffy, 3, at the recently opened Northwest Washington intergenerational community called Genesis. The apartment complex, which includes a number of spaces for residents to mingle, is designed for single older adults and young mothers who had been in the foster care system and their children.
Photo by Barbara Ruben

A stroke left Ernie Osunkoya unable to work or climb the three flights of stairs in the house where he lived. And he couldn’t afford most of the accessible apartments he looked at.

So Osunkoya was overjoyed when he learned about Genesis, a new apartment building on Georgia Avenue NW in Washington, with an elevator and subsidized rent.

An unexpected bonus of his move last November: Surrogate grandchildren.

Designed as an intergenerational community, most residents at Genesis fall into one of three categories: older adults, young mothers who have aged out of the foster care system, and the young children they are raising.

Genesis is one of several communities across the country affiliated with Generations of Hope, a nonprofit that supports the creation of intergenerational housing projects.

“The first time I saw this building, I was so happy. Everything was shipshape,” said Osunkoya, 69, who moved to the United States from his native Nigeria 20 years ago.

“And then I got to know my neighbors. That was when I understood the name Generations of Hope. Where I was living before, it was, ‘you keep your family there, and I’ll keep my single self here.’

“When I moved in here, honestly, the experience of interacting with young women who have young children has lifted my spirit up.”

He especially enjoys reading books to preschoolers in Genesis’s ground floor library.

For Osunkoya, the murals in Genesis’s lobby say it all. The vibrant paintings depict actual residents: a giggling toddler squirms in the lap of an older adult, a mother gazes lovingly at her child. Osunkoya is shown in silhouette, cane in hand, with trademark baseball cap on his head.

Forging connections

The four-story building opened in November, with 27 apartments. They range from one to three bedrooms so they can accommodate single seniors as well as mothers with several children.

Mi Casa, a Washington-based affordable housing developer, partnered with Generations of Hope and several D.C. government agencies, including the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency and the D.C. Office on Aging, to build Genesis from the ground up.

“We found incredibly appealing the goals of building community capacity, and building a community of interconnected generations,” said Elin Zurbrigg, Mi Casa’s deputy director. Genesis uses “what they call ‘intentional neighboring’ as a support system, rather than relying so much on external services, as in some housing development projects.”

Initially conceived as a traditional affordable apartment community, Mi Casa quickly changed design plans when it learned about the Generations of Hope project. While the building was already designed to be accessible for various abilities, one-bedroom units accommodating single seniors were added.

The original building design also had little community space outside of the laundry room. Genesis’s revised blueprint incorporated gathering areas for residents to get to know each other and interact.

In addition to the library of donated books for all ages, there is a computer center, conference/multi-purpose room, community kitchen, patio and garden area. Each floor has a small niche with a computer and chairs to facilitate interaction.

Residents who earn up to the 50 percent of the area median income [from $37,450 for a one-person household to $62,100 for a six-person family] pay 30 percent of their monthly income as rent. Those who earn 51 to 80 percent of the area median income pay a fixed rent. For example, a one-bedroom unit for such earners is $1,200/month.

“When I saw the rent I have to pay, my heart swelled,” Osunkoya recalled. “I can afford it!”

To be considered for residency, potential tenants, young and old, must fill out questionnaires, pass background checks, and participate in an interview. Once they are residents, they must commit to helping out in some capacity in the community for about eight hours a month — from babysitting to helping with homework.

A 22-year-old son of one of the residents teaches computer classes for the older residents. Sometimes the help required is a simple as a ride to the grocery store, cooking tips, or lending a cell phone.

A bridge to young adulthood

Residents of all ages seem to find value in getting to know the other generations in the building.

At age 18, foster children “age out” of the system and are no longer eligible for the same benefits they received when they were minors. At that time, they also become at risk for an even more difficult life.

According to the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, one in five former foster children will become homeless, only half will be employed by age 24, and 71 percent of the young women will be pregnant by age 21.

“By definition, [young foster mothers] didn’t have extended family to help them become good parents, so Genesis made a lot of sense,” said Brenda Donald, D.C.’s deputy mayor for Health and Human Services. “We are hoping to do another project like this down the road. There is a lot of interest.”

Jessie M. Jackson, 78, a former daycare worker, says she loves to babysit, and tells the young mothers, “We’re here anytime you need us to help you.”

Kyir Parrish, 22, recently aged out of the foster care system after a childhood of bouncing among relatives and foster homes in Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Pennsylvania.

“I didn’t have a good relationship with my grandmother,” said Parrish, who now has two children of her own, ages 4 and 20 months. “Living here has helped me have a new perspective with older people,” whom she turns to for advice.

Genesis is also the first home where Parrish has felt independent. “This is the first place I was ever that has given me the freedom and responsibility for living life on my own,” she said. “I am living in a community where I feel safe.”

Deciding to move into Genesis was an easy decision for Gwendolyn Wright, 21. “I want a different outcome [for my son] than I had when I was growing up,” she said looking at her active 11-month-old  Amarion, who was crawling across Genesis’s conference room table.

After shuffling through an array of homes with few adult role models, Wright now looks at some of Genesis’s older residents as mentors.

To help facilitate connections between the generations, older adults are paired with a young mothers to help create bonds, and weekly “coffee and chat” events are held. The two age groups are planning joint events, such as viewing party for the spring premiere of the television show “Empire,” and perhaps a spa day.

Bonnie Duffy Page raised a foster daughter herself and wanted to be a part of Genesis.

She says she likes Genesis because “It’s alive. It’s vibrant. It has a heartbeat. I wanted to be where there are residents of all ages and not just seniors. I really want to be a role model for young people because they are our future.”

A collection of communities

Genesis is the latest of the Generations of Hope intergenerational communities, the first of which was Hope Meadows in Illinois. That project, which also included apartments for older adults, was designed to provide community support to families adopting children from foster care.

Other projects include “kinship families,” in which grandparents or other extended family members care for young relatives and families that have been affected by incarceration.

A community that combines people with autism and older adults is in the planning stages in Howard County, Md.

“In all the communities, there is a sense of mutual support: ‘I’m giving, but also being supported and valued. I’m using the wisdom I’ve accumulated over my life, and doing something useful with it,’” said Mark Dunham, external affairs counsel for Generations of Hope.

He said that there is a high retention rate of seniors in these communities. “They come and settle in. It’s aging-in-place at its best for them. We like to call it ‘community assisted living.’ You have the community stepping in and really assisting you,” Dunham said.

Dellie Reed, 64, couldn’t agree more. She lived in the neighborhood and moved to Genesis when she decided to downsize from her single family house.

“I was quite intrigued by the program. I thought I could be a mentor, but I also thought I could learn from [the young mothers],” said Reed, who has a 30-year-old daughter but no grandchildren. “With the young ladies, there’s a trust factor. I feel trust with some of them. They tell others that I’ll listen and won’t tell it to the others.”

In addition to reading to children in the library, Reed also helps with homework.

“One boy comes and knocks on the door every day. He doesn’t even ask for help anymore. He just comes in and sits at the table and looks for his pen. Then he looks at the cupboard and asks for noodles,” Reed said with a smile.