Op-Ed

Whatcom View: Building a village to support seniors

Prospective Bellingham at Home volunteers find out about the 10 task forces they can sign up for to help launch the virtual village in Bellingham at a Dec. 9, 2015, meeting at the Bellingham Senior Center.
Prospective Bellingham at Home volunteers find out about the 10 task forces they can sign up for to help launch the virtual village in Bellingham at a Dec. 9, 2015, meeting at the Bellingham Senior Center. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Bellingham at Home is gearing up to launch programs and services in our community. Bellingham’s own virtual village is modeled on the many successful organizations of its type across America. Designed to connect neighbors with neighbors and engage in activities to help seniors remain active and independent at home, our “village” is being tailored to fit the needs of our community.

On Dec. 9, 25 people expressing interest in helping launch the village volunteered with the Bellingham at Home leadership council at the Bellingham Senior Activity Center. The council members, all volunteers, have been laying the groundwork for the organization over the past 14 months. Until the projected late-spring launch of Bellingham at Home, each member of the council will lead one or more of the ten task forces — groups of volunteers that will implement the programs and related support services of our village in Bellingham. The leadership council delivered reports on membership development, service volunteers, program plans, fund raising, outreach, publicity and administration, and outlined the tasks that need to be addressed before operations can begin.

Our village is a work in progress, and will respond to input from members, volunteers and the community at large.

Bellingham at Home is a program of the Whatcom Council on Aging, and shares resources with this umbrella non-profit organization. Funding for development depends on individual contributions and a grant from the Chuckanut Health Foundation. Pre-launch activity will be supported by volunteers and individual contributions.

Volunteer efforts

Opening the virtual doors of our village will require efforts of the volunteer task forces to fine-tune our understanding of community needs and define the initial services and programs to be offered. Of the 25 new volunteers, one group will recruit and vet the volunteers who will deliver services like transportation and minor home repairs. Another will raise funds to cover costs not covered by membership fees (typically, village memberships cover only half of costs). The outreach task force will ensure that the word gets out to neighborhood groups and other audiences. The publicity group will produce a newsletter, maintain a web presence and develop media materials. A technology group is setting up a website and an online back office to support operations. Finance and administration will set up an office, hire assistants and do financial planning.

What Bellingham at Home will offer at launch will be determined by the task forces charged with program development, social and educational programs, and connecting to local business and service providers. More offerings will be added as membership grows and provides necessary feedback. The membership task force will develop policies, levels of membership and annual fees for the non-profit organization. Our village is a work in progress, and will respond to input from members, volunteers and the community at large.

The mission of Bellingham at Home is to empower members to stay active and engaged while living in their own homes and neighborhoods. It reflects a shift from putting people in protected settings to making it possible for them to live and control their own lives by getting the help they need to do that.

Affordable services

Villages are membership-driven, grass-roots organizations that are run by volunteers and paid staff. They coordinate access to affordable services, including transportation, health and wellness programs, home repairs, social and educational activities and outings. They also offer vetted discounted service providers. Villages complement, rather than duplicate, services already available in the community. There are more than 190 villages in operation across North America, with almost as many more in development, according to the national Village to Village Network. Bellingham at Home is a member of the national group and is taking advantage of the experience of other villages to develop a local organization. Members of our leadership council were inspired at the national gathering of village representatives in Seattle in October. But we were reminded, “when you’ve seen one village, you’ve seen one village” — every village is based on the needs and resources of its own community. Although learning from others’ experience is useful, each organization must be built to fit the people who live in the area served.

Bellingham will be the focus of operations initially, but other Whatcom County communities will be able to take advantage of administrative and technical resources established by Bellingham at Home and join with their own villages. This “hub-and- spoke” model has been implemented successfully in other areas.

Allen Johnson is a member of the steering committee for Bellingham at Home, which seeks to to empower seniors to stay active and engaged while living in their own homes and neighborhoods.

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