By Karin Evans
As Ashby Village marks its fifth anniversary, no one could be more pleased — or surprised — than co-founders Pat Sussman and Shirley Haberfeld. In 2006, Sussman read an article about Beacon Hill Village in Boston, an organization formed by older people who wanted to stay independent as long as possible. Sussman, having worked as a healthcare administrator, hospice director, and staff and board member of Lifelong Medical Care, knew how challenging it could be for older people to stay socially connected, remain in their homes, get the help they might need, and make their own decisions.
“Let’s start a village,” Sussman said to her longtime friend Haberfeld, an educational psychologist. Haberfeld didn’t hesitate. She’d just gone through a frustrating time of trying to find resources in case her mother moved to town. Sussman and Haberfeld bought a how-to manual from the Beacon Hill group, and got to work.
It took several years of discussions, studying, and gathering support before Ashby Village opened its doors at the Durant House in a space provided by the First Congregational Church. When Sussman first saw the sign in the window on July 1, 2010, saying “Ashby Village,” she burst into tears. Five years later, she says, “I would never have guessed when we started that we would be here today, a sophisticated organization that has drawn in amazing people and is one of the leading villages in the country.”
Ashby Village is part of the so-called “village” movement that aims to keep seniors in their own homes by creating a community around them that can help with chores and errands big and small. Ashby Village currently has 340 members and 350 volunteers (one of out of three volunteers is also a member). Members are 50 and older, with about one-third of current members aged 60 to 80.
Members can ask trained volunteers for a variety of services, such as rides to a doctor’s appointment, help with home repair, or someone to care for the cat during a vacation. If services needed are beyond the scope of volunteers, the village can provide pre-screened and often discounted referrals. Members also enjoy free classes, social events, and connecting with one another at interest and neighborhood events. Members tend to join for services, but stay because of the sense of community. The annual feel ranges from $750 to $1200 per household, and some financial help is available.
Ashby Village, while located in Berkeley, now serves more than ten zip codes, stretching from North Oakland to Kensington.
Part of the formula for success was the persistence of the founders, their ability to reach out to community members, and the wealth of talent in the Berkeley area. One early advocate was Theodore (Ted) Ted Roszak, author of The Making of an Elder Culture and one of the world’s most prominent social scientists. “He brought enormous dedication and enthusiasm to Ashby Village,” says Sussman. Roszak, who died in 2011, wrote in his book, “As the longevity revolution unfolds, senior villages will become one of the distinctive social inventions of our time.”
Ashby Village began with 85 dues-paying members, and an eager group of volunteers, who were vetted and trained to help where needed. The highest number of requests were for rides and home repairs. Med-Pals helped members with medical appointments. Executive Director Andy Gaines’s file drawer began to fill with thank-you notes—for run of the mill help—a little box hauling, dog walking, paper sorting—but also thanks for some unusual services. Member Joan Cole expressed her great appreciation for a Village volunteer who helped her husband Bob Wendlinger complete a memoir, which he longed to do before he died.
Steve Lustig, a retired associate vice chancellor from UC Berkeley, who had run an elder care program at the University and had been deeply involved in the idea of community and aging, found a new calling at Ashby Village. “It gave me the feeling that I could still contribute.” He went to work on strategic planning and sustainability for the village. What was keeping people in the village, Lustig noticed, wasn’t services so much, but the sense of community and friendship. As the village has grown, there have been more and varied social activities—potlucks, yoga classes, hiking groups, lunches, special interest groups, village-wide happy hours and potlucks. 2014 marked the first Ashby Village photography show.
Ashby Village volunteers last year provided more than 3,000 services, from picking up groceries, to de-cluttering storage spaces, to just providing a neighborly visit. Membership has continued to grow, as have the number of volunteers and services provided.
Today, Ashby Village is recognized as a national leader of the Village Movement. “People now come to us to ask how we are doing it,” says Pat. As the village gets larger, it is changing to keep pace. The founding board has been restructured as a governing board, and committees have been formed to ensure that the village continues to fulfill its mission. A move is on to expand the ways that technology can help members. As a “virtual village,” staying efficiently connected and having good outreach is crucial. A Social Care Initiative is creating a program to keep people healthy and address the increasing needs of the frail. The focus is also turning to the wider world. One idea for the future is to share the generosity of Ashby Village’s volunteers, offering help to the greater community. By the year 2020, it’s estimated that one in five residents of Berkeley will be over the age of 65.
Sussman ’s vision now is to see Ashby Village totally financially stable, with money in the bank. That could support a more diverse socioeconomic and ethnic membership. She would also like Ashby Village to have a say in social policy outside the village, outside the Bay Area, right up to the national level. Sussman was recently appointed secretary of the board of the Village to Village Network, the national organization that includes more than 200 villages across the country, and Steve Lustig is now on the national planning committee of that organization.
As the fifth anniversary of her dream rolled around, Sussman did something she’d never done before. She phoned for some help. A drawer needed fixing, and a wonderful volunteer named Luciano—a retired academic—showed up with tools and a smile. Lustig, too, made his first call. “Our fence was falling down in back. The man who showed up to fix it was a retired professor from Berkeley City College. He and his wife are both enthusiastic birders. Those are the kind of people we attract.”
“Ashby Village is maturing as an organization, growing wiser as it grows older,” says Lustig. The feelings of connection among the members continue to grow and new friendships are formed at every gathering. And that’s the most crucial goal, the founders say—keeping the soul in Ashby Village. “That’s why we are all here,” says Lustig. “My optimism is being supported.” So is member Joan Cole’s: “I want this to be here when my children grow old,” says Cole.
For further information on Ashby Village see the website www.ashbyvillage.org or email the office at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone (510) 204-9200.
On July 12, a public presentation will take place at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Kensington. All are invited and there is no charge.
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