How area villages protect their members
The pandemic has its silver linings. Last month, for instance, a group of older adults in Arlington, Virginia, toured D.C. embassies without leaving their homes.
The free tour, organized by Arlington Neighborhood Village, was a popular event, according to the group’s executive director, Wendy Zenker, with more than 60 attendees.
“We had twice as many people joining us on Zoom than we had in person [last year],” Zenker said.
On Mondays, Arlington Neighborhood Village offers its 220 members a chance to play bocce outdoors; on Tuesdays, they can learn tai chi. These activities are all free during the pandemic. Members can also stay safe at home and have their groceries delivered free by a volunteer.
Although annual membership fees range from $100 to $500, in March the village decided to waive its membership fee due to the crisis.
“We welcome any Arlington resident,” Zenker said of the grassroots group founded in 2014. “We didn’t want there to be any barriers to helping any senior that needed resources.”
What’s a village?
Helping older adults stay in their homes is what a village is all about.
Villages are “grassroots organizations promoting neighbor-to-neighbor support,” according to the Village to Village Network, a national coalition. These nonprofits, many of which are startups, help older adults age in place in their neighborhoods.
The idea began in Boston’s tony Beacon Hill neighborhood two decades ago. A group of neighbors didn’t want to move to retirement communities in the suburbs. Instead, they said, they wanted “to stay engaged in our own neighborhood in this vibrant city.” They formed a nonprofit, Beacon Hill Village, in 2002.
Today, more than 250 villages exist in America, with 100 more in the works, according to the Village to Village Network. In our area, D.C. has 17 villages, Virginia has 16, and Maryland has 40, according to the Washington Area Villages Exchange.
There are many different kinds of villages, but most offer free rides (or did so before the pandemic, that is). Volunteers would regularly drive people to the doctor, church or grocery store.
They may also offer technological help, make friendly phone calls and bring older adults together with events. Some villages, like the one in Takoma Park, Maryland, even send volunteers to do home repairs or declutter houses.
Most villages charge a small annual fee for these services —the cost is low because the groups are powered by volunteers.
Many village members donate several hours a week to their local group. At the Arlington Neighborhood Village, for instance, about one in four members are also volunteers.
Weekly COVID Calls
In Washington, D.C., the Georgetown Village’s volunteers are now delivering groceries to members.
The group “has totally pivoted” due to COVID, said its executive director, Lynn Golub-Rofrano, MSW. It has started offering online programs for free. The web-based programs fulfill some of Georgetown Village’s core goals: to prevent social isolation, provide volunteer services, and offer education sessions.
For example, one of the village’s recent presentations, part of the series “Philanthropy, Protests and the Pandemic,” taught members how to vet charities.
“We don’t want people sending donations to organizations that aren’t worthy,” Golub-Rofrano said. “This series is offering the community resources to get through this as safely as possible in many areas — whether it’s the donations they’re making or telehealth.”
Another weekly virtual event, “Cocktails, COVID and Conversations,” hosts local professionals who brief members on, say, the Georgetown Business District. In addition, they have a weekly Zoom session on Thursdays about the latest coronavirus news.
“A retired nurse practitioner and a retired NIH official are members, so we have a ‘COVID Call’ where they answer questions and update information,” Golub-Rofrano said. “These two extremely capable professionals are able to summarize for the members what’s new in the news; what’s changed this week.”
While stuck at home, why not write? In Maryland, some villages have offered memoir writing classes. In September, the Takoma Park Village offered a free writing class (open to members and non-members) called “Create Family Stories to Share.”
Drive-through flu shots
Another unique program took shape in Silver Spring, Maryland this fall.
Hoping to keep its members safe, Doug Gaddis, the executive director of Silver Spring Village, reached out to a local pharmacy to provide drive-through flu shots in September. Members and their families were invited to stay in their cars while pharmacists gave them a flu shot in the parking lot.
In keeping with the times, Silver Spring Village is also moderating a series of discussions on racial justice.
No matter where they’re located, villages can be a “lifesaver,” as one member of Silver Spring Village reported in a summer survey. As another member put it, the village is “almost as important as my family.”
Does your neighborhood have a village? Search for your local village at vtvnetwork.org.